One year after Tay, Microsoft is still big on bots — and here is where it’s focusing now

Credit: geekwire.com

Xuedong Huang, Microsoft technical fellow of artificial intelligence, spoke at the AI NEXT conference in Bellevue, Wash., this weekend. (GeekWire Photo / Geof Wheelwright)

Microsoft has learned a lot about chatbot technology since the unfortunate rollout of the short-lived “Tay” chatbot one year ago this week, when Internet users were able to teach Tay to make racist and misogynistic remarks. This weekend, the company offered insights on the lessons learned from that experience, as well as the huge amount of artificial intelligence work Microsoft is now undertaking.


With encouragement from CEO Satya Nadella, the company’s artificial intelligence team moved on from Tay and started offering a new chatbot aimed at millennials called Zo late last year. Zo is based on the company’s popular XiaoIce Chinese-language bot (which Microsoft rolled out on WeChat in 2014).


“Tay is gone, Zo is the one we are embracing and supporting,” said Xuedong Huang, Microsoft technical fellow of artificial intelligence, during a presentation on Saturday at the AI NEXT tech conference in Bellevue, Wash. “AI is (about) learning from data. We learned from what happened. (With Tay), we didn’t do a super, super good job. With Zo, we are doing a much better job.”


Microsoft doubled-down on artificial intelligence last fall with the formation of a new 5,000-person AI and Research Group.


Huang demonstrated a number of major applications of Microsoft’s AI and chat technologies, including a new implementation Microsoft is now using on its company-wide support website. He showed how you can just click on the “Get started” button to start an immediate chatbot session. Once in the chat, you can ask questions such as “How do I upgrade from Windows 8?”


In the demonstration, not all the answers provided the best possible resolution to the question, but Huang says it is a work in progress and does demonstrate the promise of the technology — and the way Microsoft is committed to using bots to meet mainstream enterprise business requirements.


Li Deng, Microsoft chief Scientist of Artificial intelligence. (GeekWire Photo / Geof Wheelwright)

Li Deng, Microsoft’s chief scientist of artificial intelligence, told the conference that today’s AI and chat solutions are the culmination of several decades of evolution in artificial intelligence — with each stage of AI marking a new generation of solutions.


Deng said that the first generation of AI lasted from the early part of the 1990s until almost the turn of the decade, and was primarily centered on rules and templates.


Such systems offered limited function in terms of the inputs allowed and the outputs provided (think of early voice-based train schedule information systems) and relied on those with expert domain knowledge to design them. They were hard to scale to more than one area of expertise, or domain. You couldn’t, for example, use the framework for a flight-booking system to architect a telephone banking system. Data was only used to design the rules that created the system — not to learn and evolve the way the system operated.


“The problem was this approach was that it was very brittle,” he said. “There are still many systems today based on this approach because it’s easy to interpret the results.”


The next generation of AI came in the late 1990s and was based on “data-driven, shallow learning” and used in conjunction with speech recognition, he said. Its goals were really about using data to reduce the cost of hand-crafting complex dialogues and making systems less sensitive to speech recognition errors. It also did try to leverage data a lot more.


“If you have a lot of data, you automatically learn a lot of things,” he said. “It pushed the state of the art in a very nice direction because it was data-driven.”


But Deng explained that this second generation of AI produced results that were not always easy to interpret or debug — and these systems were hard to update. They also didn’t really replace first-generation systems, but rather ran in parallel with them.


All of that leads to today’s third generation of artificial intelligence, from which Microsoft’s current chat solutions came. Deng says that in these systems, the key difference is data-driven deep learning.


Deng says this deep learning approach powers today’s conversational bots into four categories: social chatbots (such as Microsoft’s Zo and XiaoIce); InfoBots (aimed primarily at retrieving information); task completion bots (that are all about helping you accomplish a particular task, such as booking a flight or troubleshooting a technical issue); and personal assistant bots (which can combine informational retrieval and task completion with recommendations — such as suggesting the best Italian restaurant near you).


Microsoft faces tough competition in all of the above categories for use of bot technology — and notably AI driven by voice. Deng acknowledged the broad field by identifying Amazon’s Echo, Apple’s Siri, Google Now, VocalIQ and IBM Watson Analytics as competitors that play in the same space as Microsoft’s Cortana.


Deng also talked about how Microsoft has combined AI with speech recognition and machine translation technologies. By taking speech recognition technology to turn spoken words into text, Microsoft can then use its machine translation tools to translate those words from one language to another.


Speech synthesis technology then allows those newly-translated words to be converted into spoken words in another language. All of those functions have now been rolled into the latest features for Microsoft Translator, which rolled out late last year for Android, Amazon, iOS and Windows devices.


Related Tags

#



Harvard Business Review

Top Stories

Q&A with Topgolf’s CEO about the popular sports entertainment company and a possible Seattle location

Golf isn’t the most popular sport, but Topgolf is certainly doing its part to change that perception. The growing sports entertainment company operates more than 30 driving-range-meets-bowling-alley entertainment facilities — with 11 more soon to open — that feature 6-person hitting bays with microchipped trackable golf balls, along with food, drink, TV screens, free WiFi, and much more. Technology is a key part of the Topgolf experience — from the balls with RFID chips to the Protracer cameras — and that’s why we’re excited to hear from Topgolf co-chairman and CEO Erik Anderson at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit on June 21-22 in Seattle at CenturyLink Field. Anderson, who… Read More
  • 4 days ago
  • 14

GeekWire Deals: Tackle your business plan with the simple, visual Roadmap Planner

Running a business is complicated. When you’re at the helm of strategy, finances, and vision, it can feel like you’re spending more time planning than actually doing. Tasks like this require serious organization, and that’s exactly what today’s GeekWire Deals offer will provide. It’s time to upgrade from a mess of Post-it notes and recruit Roadmap Planner. This project management mastermind brings everything into one easy-to-navigate digital calendar, with all the tagging and color-coding you need to stay on-track. Visualize your current state, your future goals, and all the progress you make along the way. Share easily with team members… Read More
  • 4 days ago
  • 12

Echodyne gets a $29M boost from NEA, Bill Gates and others for low-cost radar

Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen are among the investors putting another $29 million into Echodyne, the Intellectual Ventures spin-out that’s developing low-cost, miniaturized radar systems for drones and self-driving cars. Echodyne founder and CEO Eben Frankenberg said the Series B funding round was led by New Enterprise Associates, or NEA, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Gates, Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group, the Kresge Foundation and Allen’s Vulcan Capital are among the investors following up on their participation in 2014’s $15 million Series A round, Frankenberg told GeekWire. He declined to say how the new investment affects the valuation of the… Read More
  • 3 days ago
  • 12

How Jeff Bezos’ passion for space is inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs and explorers

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos visited the Museum of Flight this weekend to answer questions from students, the kids did not hold back. “That’s one of the great things about kids,” Bezos said on Saturday. “There are always questions.” Scores of elementary-school and middle-school students came from the Seattle area as well as from Deer Park, a city just north of Spokane on the other side of the state, to cram into the museum’s “Apollo” exhibit and meet America’s second-richest person (after Bill Gates). The kids asked about Bezos’ successful expedition to recover sunken rocket engines from the Apollo moon missions, about his… Read More
  • 4 days ago
  • 12

Apple and Nokia bury the hatchet

Lawsuits get settled, but what about the companies wielding Nokia patents?
  • 2 days ago
  • 11

Latest in Technology

Working Geek: Paul Allen’s climate change guru Spencer Reeder moonlights as a musician

It’s easy to see why Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen brought on Spencer Reeder to run Vulcan’s climate change-focused philanthropic initiatives. Reeder holds two engineering degrees, he’s done geophysical field research in Central Asia, South America, and Antarctica, and he’s held environment-focused roles in academia, government, and tech. But it probably didn’t hurt Reeder’s chances when Allen found out they share another passion besides environmental protection: music. Reeder’s band, Emergency Volcano Evacuation Route recently performed at Paul Allen’s Upstream Music Fest + Summit earlier this month. Music is one of his many passions, including climbing, skiing, trail running, and competitive ultimate frisbee. His day… Read More
  • 50 minutes ago

Bulletproof, the lifestyle startup fueled by butter-coffee, gets a $19M jolt of new funding

Bulletproof 360, the Bellevue, Wash.-based lifestyle brand with a focus on “clean coffee” and other high-performance food and drinks, has gotten another jolt in its quest to get people to “live better.” The startup has raised $19 million in a new round of funding. In the backyard of coffee giant Starbucks, Bulletproof founder and CEO Dave Asprey is the man behind the movement, mixing coffee and butter to promote brain power. “People really do feel different when they have Bulletproof coffee,” Asprey told GeekWire in 2015, after his company raised $9 million in its initial round of funding. “Part of… Read More
  • 50 minutes ago

In a throwback to the ’90s, NTFS bug lets anyone hang or crash Windows 7, 8.1

It's like the c:\con\con bug all over again.
  • 51 minutes ago

Florida GOP consultant admits he worked with Guccifer 2.0, analyzing hacked data

Voting models, other data were “worth millions,” consultant told Guccifer 2.0.
  • 53 minutes ago

Steve Ballmer says potential income tax in Seattle would cause ‘unfavorable business climate’

Seattle is the fastest-growing big city across the U.S., but a potential new income tax would sway folks away from the area and negatively affect its bustling business ecosystem. That’s what Steve Ballmer told KIRO Radio this week, with the former Microsoft CEO noting how an income tax, which is currently moving through city council and would target Seattle’s wealthiest residents, could cause an “unfavorable business climate.” Ballmer said the income tax would “cause people to think about moving jobs elsewhere” away from Seattle, which he described as “a center of talent in the tech industry.” Ballmer also opposed a proposed statewide income tax, I-1098, in 2010.… Read More
  • 2 hours ago

Proposed bill reportedly could let the government take over and search drones

In a dystopian episode of “Black Mirror,” a hacker tracked and seized control of robotic bees, and the Trump administration is reportedly looking into ways to do that with drones. But instead of targeting unpopular people, this plan aims to bring down the drones. According to Recode, administration officials and congressional staff members are discussing legislation that lays out a four-step plan: First, identify or track the drone to see if it’s a threat. If so, take control. Then damage or disrupt the drone and its payload (like an SD card, for example). Finally, conduct research on it. The move comes less than… Read More
  • 2 hours ago

Farewell, Bachman: ‘Silicon Valley’ star T.J. Miller is leaving the HBO comedy after this season

Curl up in your bathrobe and hold that bong rip a few extra seconds for this news: T.J. Miller, the actor who portrays entrepreneurial tech doofus Erlich Bachman on “Silicon Valley,” will not be returning to the HBO comedy next season, it was announced Thursday. Interview: T.J. Miller on startup culture, women in tech, Elon Musk, and weed The comedian has starred for four seasons on the show, as the owner of a house which served as the “incubator” for Pied Piper, the fictional company at the center of the weekly send-up on the tech community and personalities that circulate… Read More
  • 3 hours ago

Identity-theft victims ask FCC to clean up fake anti-net neutrality comments

FCC should investigate and throw out fake comments, impersonation victims say.
  • 3 hours ago

Tech Moves: Amperity adds former Facebook engineering leader; Ex-Amazon talent director joins Outreach; and more

Dave Fetterman has had what you might call an illustrious career. He earned two degrees from Harvard, spent his first two years out of college as a software design engineer at Microsoft and then joined Facebook as one of the company’s first employees in 2006. Now Fetterman has made another jump to join Seattle-based Amperity, a stealthy startup working on machine learning marketing solutions. Fetterman is now serving as Amperity’s VP of engineering at its headquarters in Seattle. In the role, he will be responsible for all aspects of the company’s engineering team. Amperity co-founder and CEO Kabir Shahani told GeekWire via email… Read More
  • 4 hours ago

We tried the new AmazonFresh Pickup service in Seattle, and this is what happened

Amazon launched its new AmazonFresh Pickup grocery service to Amazon Prime members at two Seattle locations this morning, and GeekWire jumped at the opportunity to be the first people outside of the company’s own employees to try it out. Watch the video below, and continue reading for details. The concept is simple: Order your groceries online and pick them up in a designated time window at the AmazonFresh Pickup location. And the experience was, in fact, largely seamless for me, and it promises to be even faster next time as long as I’m able to give up a bit of our privacy by letting Amazon store my license plate. I started… Read More
  • 4 hours ago

Spin cycle maker Peloton set to open Seattle-area showroom, hits $1B valuation

Peloton, the freshly-minted unicorn company that makes $2,000 high-tech spin bikes, is opening up a showroom in the Seattle area. According to the company’s website, the showroom will be in the Bellevue Square Mall. Peloton is hosting a launch party for the new studio June 8. Peloton just closed a $325 million Series F funding round, at a $1.25 billion valuation, led by Wellington Management, Fidelity Investments, Kleiner Perkins and True Ventures, with participation from GGV Capital and Comcast NBCUniversal. Wall Street Journal cited Brian Smith, an analyst with Piper Jaffray, who expects the value of the health and fitness market… Read More
  • 5 hours ago

NASA’s Juno orbiter maps Jupiter’s super cyclones and monstrous magnetism

NASA’s Juno orbiter has been sending back stunning pictures of Jupiter for months, but now the mission’s scientists are sharing their first peer-reviewed findings about the planet’s previously unseen polar storms and powerful magnetic field. “The results from Juno’s initial close passes of Jupiter are understanding of this gas giant,” the Juno science team, led by principal investigator Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute, reports in the journal Science. Bolton and his colleagues laid out those results today in a set of papers published by Science and Geophysical Research Letters, and in a NASA audio teleconference. Jupiter has been previously studied… Read More
  • 5 hours ago