It's easy to think of robots as servants who do our bidding.

We talk to Siri on an iPhone and ask the bot to set a reminder about picking up milk at the grocery store. We talk to the Google Pixel smartphone and ask the bot to enable the flashlight. These bots are under our command, and using them is helpful and fun. Yet, Microsoft might have a slightly different view of how this works. The company recently announced a new direction to use more AI, but it's incredibly practical. Instead of telling a bot to mow your lawn, you might ask one to make a slideshow.

Here's a good example. A new competitor to Slack called Microsoft Teams--introduced this month but launching next year--includes bots that are designed to help you find information and learn the app. A recent product demo in New York revealed some interesting details. One of the bots is called T-Bot, and it lets you type any question about how to use Teams and find the answer. Another, called Polly, is for polling.

The Who-Bot is my favorite, though. As you may already know, collaborative software is the new email. Apps like Slack allow you to discuss projects, exchange files, and even do a meet and greet with a new employee. It is a "one to many" concept, but in apps like Slack and Convo, there are times when you might feel a little lost in the turmoil.

Who-Bot is one answer to this problem.

Let's say you are working on a new product launch with the marketing team. Everyone is setup on Microsoft Teams and can share the PowerPoint slideshow. Suddenly, you reach a road block. One part of the presentation talks about European markets. In Slack and Convo, I've had this happen before. There are incredible advantages to a team chat because everyone can see what you're talking about, but things can stall out quickly. When that happens, everyone stalls. It's like a traffic jam where there are no police officers and no traffic cams. We're all stuck in the mud together.

During the demo, a Microsoft rep showed how Who-Bot would help in this situation. You could start a new chat with the Who-Bot and can ask a question like: "Who knows the most about European markets?" This actually works. The bot uses the Microsoft Graph, which has a name that reminds me of The Matrix. It can analyze things like the documents a person creates and the meetings they have attended.

In the Who-Bot, you can ask about one person and their colleagues (and what they know or what they've worked on), so it's like finding information about company shared knowledge. You can find out what topics are important to someone on the team or that someone lived in Austria for a while. You can even ask about your own boss and his areas of expertise and knowledge or which topics are important to her role.

I see this as ground-breaking for a few reasons. In many companies, it's hard to know what you don't know. I might be chatting on Convo with someone and can check their LinkedIn profile, but how much do I really know about their work history or topics of focus? How do I find their docs? When those roadblocks happen on a project, you might not know who has experience creating web apps or who has traveled to Europe recently. The Who-Bot could be the ultimate people connector.

Now, I should say that Microsoft was not ready to show me a live demo of how this all works quite yet, and the New York presentation seemed a bit canned. No one actually did a live search. But I can see some amazing implications for pushing through roadblocks in a team chat and finding out more about who is doing what, which teams are collaborating, and who has the answer to a momentum-crushing problem.

As a side note, it is important mention that Microsoft Teams will be available for Office 365 users and, at least during a beta test period, it won't support "guest" access from people who do not use Office (e.g., someone on Gmail). That makes it a bit more of an enterprise tool, although small companies definitely still use Office.

Still, I like where this is going. AI without the parlor tricks.

Published on: Nov 16, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.