Microsoft, at its Build 2019 conference, wants us to have conversations with our computers

The software maker gets into how it expects us to work with artificial intelligence programs in the future.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
3 min read

In Star Trek, it's way easier to deal with computers.


In the futuristic Star Trek-like world, people don't spend so much time tapping their phones or typing on keyboards. They have conversations with their computers.

That future, in which people effortlessly ask for something from their always-everywhere computer and can ask further requests based on the response, isn't several centuries away. Apparently, it's possible today.

During its Build developer conference in Seattle on Monday, Microsoft showed off new technology for its Cortana voice assistant. The upgrades, powered in part by technology Microsoft acquired for an undisclosed amount last year through a company called Semantic Machines, allows someone to have an ongoing conversation tracking scheduling appointments, reminders and other similar tasks with little effort.

Microsoft is "hard at work envisioning this future," the company's CEO Satya Nadella said while speaking at the company's Build developer conference Monday.

For example, today we can typically ask voice assistants to read back our calendars, but Microsoft believes that in the not too distant future, we won't need to bark out " Siri !" or "Cortana!" Instead, we'll merely ask our always-listening assistants what our schedules are, whether the right people have been invited to meetings and where we have lunch plans set. And Microsoft says we won't need to use the stilted language most voice assistants require these days.

Read on ZDNetMicrosoft Build 2019: Azure is the star, and Windows is a bit player

While it's only a demo, Microsoft's talk about the future of voice assistants offers a promising look at where this technology is headed. Today, we've had to learn a mishmash of odd phrasing and repeated commands to get voice-controlled technology to do what we want it to. And often, they get it wrong anyway, particularly when we dictate a message to them.

That's part of why Microsoft is touting its advances. While the company's Cortana voice assistant is included in its Windows 10 software for PCs and can be downloaded for Apple iPhones and Android-powered devices, it isn't as widely used as Apple's Siri, Google's Assistant or Amazon's Alexa, according to data from industry researcher Voicebot.ai.

That hasn't stopped Microsoft from trying though. Two years ago, the software giant showed off new technology it's offering companies to more easily understand what you say, even if you don't say it exactly as the computer would normally understand. So if a video game you're playing is expecting to hear you say "how old are you," and you say "you look really young," it'll know you basically mean the same thing.

The company's also been bulking up its technology for computers to understand what we say, creating new features for its Skype team chat system, for example, that offers live captions of what people say, and even can translate languages in real time.

What's unclear is when Microsoft will be able to offer this conversational AI tech to the rest of us. For now, it's just a demonstration.

Originally published May 6 at 8:30 a.m. PT.
Update, 9:43 a.m. PT: Adds quote from Nadella's speech; Update, 1:57 p.m. PT: Adds video from YouTube.

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