A few months ago at Microsoft's Build developer conference, CEO Satya Nadella described a new bot development framework called Conversations as a Platform. It consisted of a number of developer tools to make bots that understand the human voice and use machine learning to answer questions and deliver useful information.
The Build announcement was important for a couple of reasons. It was Microsoft making the bold statement that the App Age is ending, bots are the new thing, and Microsoft is leading the charge. It also represented the first major directional shift for Microsoft that comes from the brain of Satya Nadella.
Today Microsoft announces a new group of bots that are the fruit of its labors with its bot developer partners. They are:
- The Skyscanner bot helps individuals or people in a group chat search for flights, and returns live prices and route options within Skype.
- The StubHub bot lets people discuss, locate, and buy event tickets within Skype.
- The IFTTT bot returns automated messages from apps, devices, and websites based on triggers set by the user. This could mean anything from breaking news to weather alerts, or a notification that someone's at the front door.
- The Hipmunk bot does pretty much what the Hipmunk app does, only in a voice-based, conversational way. That is, it returns all sorts of travel data, prices, and advice.
- The Spock bot is a AI version of the popular Vulcan from Star Trek.
In Skype, bots are selected from a directory and added to the user's contacts. Users add bots to conversations and talk to them just like human contacts. Microsoft says the more users talk to the bots the more the bots can anticipate the user's needs.
Microsoft's Skype VP Gurdeep Pall: "We want bots to become the quickest way to handle simple tasks, like shopping or managing your calendar, and the most effortless way to complete complex tasks, like planning a vacation from scratch."
The truth is, these are still early days for voice-controlled bots. Many of the ones we've seen are a bit clumsy, and not terribly useful. They're like children—still learning and growing. As a rule, today's AIs have either broad general knowledge or deep vertical knowledge, but not both. They know a little about a lot, or a lot about a little, but not a lot about a lot. Siri and Alexa are generalists. Bots like Hipmunk's have deep vertical knowledge about travel. What we don't have is a super-bot like Samantha, the artificially intelligent operating system in the movie Her who can do everything from parsing email to teaching a new language to writing a love song. I have no doubt we're heading quickly in that direction.
I haven't tried the new Skype bots, so I won't pass judgment, but I'm not expecting anything life-changing. Still, it's encouraging to see Microsoft putting resources into its Conversation as a Platform initiative and quickly getting off the dime creating new bots.