This past week reminds me of the paper clip nightmare from long ago. Or possibly: Microsoft Bob, the Windows app most techie folks regard as one of the worst of all time.

Last week, a new artificially intelligent robot starting making racial slurs, swearing, and insulting entire people groups after Internet trolls taught it to speak their language. (The trick involved getting the chatbot to repeat phrases and respond to questions over and over again. Tay reappeared briefly today to make a few more outrageous comments, then went dark again.)

Now, Microsoft has announced they have a few more tricks to reveal, and hopefully none of them involve a robot acting like a teenage girl.

Satya Nadella gave a keynote at the  Build 2016 developer conference today, which always serves as a nice glimpse of what Microsoft is up to and what to expect.

The company made a major push for intelligent chatbots. Nadella announced few new A.I. tricks that will be debuting in their software and operating system soon.

The CEO spent quite a bit of time in his keynote explaining some of the new technology, and the one big takeaway is that Microsoft wants A.I. to be the new form of Web browsing. Instead of clicking on links and typing in URLs all day, we'll talk to digital assistants who do most of the work on our behalf.

In one demo, the Cortana bot jumped into a conversation from one human to another and set a reminder about an event. In another, a Skype bot look into a navigational route for an upcoming trip. Reps for Microsoft explained how these bots will handle some of the mundane tasks of setting up meetings and booking flights.

You may already know that you can talk to your Windows 10 computer today. A new version of the OS will debut in a few months that lets you make more advanced queries. In the most interesting demo with Cortana, the bot knew that a conference coming up was a suggestion from another chat with a human. That "overload" robot concept might seem scary (not sure we want them watching our conversations) but it was also helpful to see that context.

One of my concerns with these bots, though, is that they won't be able to understand all of the context, so that might make them less than useful. For example, I noted how Cortana can already run on iPhone and Android, and you can receive text messages in Windows and respond to them. But, unlike the Mac, it doesn't look like you can answer phone calls. Which means, Cortana can't answer the phone for you or take a message. Until these bots can handle most of our mundane tasks, we might just keep waiting for them to catch up.

My guess is that Microsoft intended Tay to be a good lead-in to the Build 2016 conference, not a black mark on its reputation. The bot was an embarrassment, but also an experiment. The new chatbots, which will become available over the new few weeks and months, look more promising. We'll see if they are helpful.

Published on: Mar 30, 2016
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