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Google and Microsoft Advance Efforts To Deliver Bots

Google last week put a new horse in the race of "bots," the technology that aims to bring virtual assistants to every computer, tablet, phone and embedded device. The search giant demonstrated its new virtual assistant at its annual IO developer conference at its Mountain View, Calif. headquarters.

It's hardly a surprise that Google wants to offer bot technology, given the massive amount of data it gathers from individual searches and the company's well-known machine learning technology. The new Google Assistant is hardware that will interface with Google Home designed to respond to voice commands. Conceptually it's similar to Amazon's Echo device, which is hardware that responds to voice commands. I have an Echo, which does some interesting things such as provide weather forecasts and, of course, lets me order merchandise from the online retailer. But at this point, it doesn't take much to ask it something it can't answer, although presumably that'll change over time.

The same is true for Microsoft's Cortana and Apple Siri, though I haven't put any of these through the paces yet. For its part, Microsoft made clear it will advance Cortana, having released the Cortana Analytics Suite for developers and the Azure Bot Framework, which it announced at the recent Build 2016 conference in San Francisco, Calif. The company last month subsequently released the APIs for the Bot Framework and extended support for its Skype Bot to Macs. Since Build a few months ago, Microsoft has emphasized its plans to invest heavily in bots and now it looks like we'll see them extended to Bing.

A job posting, discovered and reported by Mary Jo Foley on Friday in her All About Microsoft blog,  read that Microsoft was looking for experts to develop its "Bing Concierge" bot. The company, which didn't comment when she inquired, curiously removed the job post after Foley reported on it.  But according to the text of the job posting:

"In Bing Concierge Bot we are building a highly intelligent productivity agent that communicates with the user over a conversation platform, such as Skype, Messenger, SMS, WhatsApp, Telegram, etc. The agent does what a human assistant would do: it runs errands on behalf of the user, by automatically completing tasks for the user. The users talk to the agent in natural language, and the agent responds in natural language to collect all the information; once ready, it automatically performs the task for the user by connecting to service providers. For example, the user might ask 'make me a reservation at an Italian place tonight', and the agent will respond with 'for how many people?'; after several such back-and-forth turns it will confirm and book the restaurant that the user picked."

Foley also noted that Microsoft last week announced that its Bot Framework now connects with Kirk Interactive's bots.

While Microsoft continues its storied push to increase Bing use, and is hoping Cortana -- both in Windows and in other platforms -- will be the catalyst, Google used its Google I/O conference to demonstrate significant progress in its own efforts.

As John K. Waters reported on Redmond sister site Application Development Trends, Google is claiming that 20 percent of all its queries are spoken. Sundar Pichai, presiding over Google I/O for the first time as the company CEO, described his vision to create a more ubiquitous, conversational and "assistive" way to interact with technology "This is a pivotal moment in where we are with the company," Pichai told attendees. "It's not just enough to give people links. We need to help them get things done in the real world."

In the days preceding Google I/O, the company also announced that it is making its developer tool kit for its SyntaxNet artificial intelligence, which Googe calls "the world's most accurate parser," free for developers to modify. It came just days after Amazon open-sourced its Deep Scalalable Sparse Tensor Network, which is available on GitHub.

The battle for creating the front end of AI-based personal assistance is still in its early stages and it's looking like no one provider will have the only bot people use. And as Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple advance their efforts, don't forget about Facebook, which has an estimated 1 billion users at the front end of its social network.

What's your favorite bot, or virtual assistant?

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 05/23/2016 at 12:32 PM


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