Inside Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence Comeback

Yoshua Bengio

[Yoshua Bengio, one of the three intellects who shaped the deep learning that now dominates artificial intelligence, has never been one to take sides. But Bengio has recently chosen to sign on with Microsoft. In this WIRED article he explains why.]

“We don’t want one or two companies, which I will not name, to be the only big players in town for AI,” he says, raising his eyebrows to indicate that we both know which companies he means. One eyebrow is in Menlo Park; the other is in Mountain View. “It’s not good for the community. It’s not good for people in general.”

That’s why Bengio has recently chosen to forego his neutrality, signing on with Microsoft.

Yes, Microsoft. His bet is that the former kingdom of Windows alone has the capability to establish itself as AI’s third giant. It’s a company that has the resources, the data, the talent, and—most critically—the vision and culture to not only realize the spoils of the science, but also push the field forward.

Just as the internet disrupted every existing business model and forced a re-ordering of industry that is just now playing out, artificial intelligence will require us to imagine how computing works all over again.

In this new landscape, computing is ambient, accessible, and everywhere around us. To draw from it, we need a guide—a smart conversationalist who can, in plain written or spoken form, help us navigate this new super-powered existence. Microsoft calls it Cortana.

Because Cortana comes installed with Windows, it has 145 million monthly active users, according to the company. That’s considerably more than Amazon’s Alexa, for example, which can be heard on fewer than 10 million Echoes. But unlike Alexa, which primarily responds to voice, Cortana also responds to text and is embedded in products that many of us already have. Anyone who has plugged a query into the search box at the top of the toolbar in Windows has used Cortana.

Eric Horvitz wants Microsoft to be more than simply a place where research is done. He wants Microsoft Research to be known as a place where you can study the societal and social influences of the technology.

This will be increasingly important as Cortana strives to become, to the next computing paradigm, what your smartphone is today: the front door for all of your computing needs. Microsoft thinks of it as an agent that has all your personal information and can interact on your behalf with other agents.

If Cortana is the guide, then chatbots are Microsoft’s fixers. They are tiny snippets of AI-infused software that are designed to automate one-off tasks you used to do yourself, like making a dinner reservation or completing a banking transaction.

Emma Williams, Marcus Ash, and Lili Cheng

So far, North American teens appear to like chatbot friends every bit as much as Chinese teens, according to the data. On average, they spend 10 hours talking back and forth with Zo. As Zo advises its adolescent users on crushes and commiserates about pain-in-the-ass parents, she is becoming more elegant in her turns of phrase—intelligence that will make its way into Cortana and Microsoft’s bot tools.

It’s all part of one strategy to help ensure that in the future, when you need a computing assist–whether through personalized medicine, while commuting in a self-driving car, or when trying to remember the birthdays of all your nieces and nephews–Microsoft will be your assistant of choice.

Source: Wired for the full in-depth article

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