Microsoft taps into AI with SwiftKey app acquisition

Hundreds of millions of people already use the predictive-keyboard app, but Microsoft's real interest lies in its artificial intelligence.

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Steven Musil
2 min read

Microsoft is getting its hands on more than just a popular app.

Josh Miller/CNET

Microsoft has purchased SwiftKey but is more interested in the artificial intelligence behind the software than in the popular app itself.

The tech giant confirmed Wednesday it acquired the maker of the predictive-keyboard app, which is installed on more than 300 million handsets. Microsoft paid around $250 million, according to the Financial Times. Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

SwiftKey's app learns your typing style and particular vernacular to offer suggestions while you type. It's been on Android phones and tablets since 2010 and on Apple mobile devices since 2014, when Apple opened up access to third-party keyboards.

"Our mission is to enhance interaction between people and technology," Jon Reynolds and Ben Medlock, co-founders of London-based SwiftKey, said in a blog post. "We believe joining Microsoft is the right next stage in our journey."

The acquisition could give Microsoft a boost in the phone business, where the company largely missed the boat. But the acquisition isn't just about competing to become your keyboard of choice.

"SwiftKey's technology aligns with our vision for more personal computing experiences that anticipate our needs versus responding to our commands," Harry Shum, Microsoft's executive vice president of technology and research, said in a blog post.

The acquisition is also about the artificial intelligence -- widely expected to be the next frontier of computing -- that the app uses to predict people's word choices. Research in AI, the ability of a machine, computer or system to exhibit human-like intelligence, has been dominated lately by large tech companies such as Google and Facebook.

The goal is to create machines that can perceive their environment and complete a wide array of everyday tasks previously performed by humans. While much has been made about intelligent robots, other AI applications include speech and handwriting recognition, fraud prevention, automatic email replies and self-driving cars.

Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft has dabbled in AI before, most publicly with Cortana, the digital assistant found in its Windows 10 operating system. Like Apple's Siri and Google's own Google Now service, Cortana lets you interact with a device by talking to it. You can ask it to set reminders, to respond to text messages and to find contextual information gleaned from emails and search results such as flight times, sports scores and news headlines.

Microsoft's Project Oxford artificial intelligence team has concocted emotion-reading technology that uses knowledge of facial expressions to identify specific human feelings conveyed in photos. The technology trains computers to recognize eight emotional states: anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, neutral, sadness and surprise.

Many futurists envision fantastic benefits from AI. However, some tech titans, such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, are concerned about AI's potential dangers. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has expressed fears that AI could be more dangerous than nuclear weapons, and famed physicist Stephen Hawking has voiced reservations about AI as well.