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It's not just Zuckerberg: Microsoft wants to build a real Jarvis too

You may not own a Windows PC, tap around on a Windows Phone or even play games on an Xbox, but Microsoft thinks artificial intelligence will help make the company part of your life.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella holds court at the company's Build conference. Like other techies, he's interested in the potential of artificial intelligence.
Josh Miller/CNET

Microsoft has seen the future, and it's filled with bots.

No, not robots or flying drones, but rather these new apps that can perform simple tasks at your beck and call. Want to book a flight? Microsoft believes a bot can do that for you. Need to remember to send an email to your boss? A bot can remind you. Bots can even help translate conversations in different languages, tell you where to travel for a meeting or book you a hotel room.

Think Jarvis, the digital butler who helps out Tony Stark in his adventures as Iron Man.

Microsoft sees a tech world filled with different types of Jarvises (Jarvi?), and it wants to be the company that helps make them.

"We're really excited about the new opportunities and new frontiers," said Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO. Speaking at the company's Build developer conference in San Francisco, Nadella said he wants to encourage software makers to create these new types of apps. "We want all developers to infuse intelligence into their applications."

This new focus on bots and people's conversations with computers is part of Microsoft's quest to build an even deeper relationship with you, whether or not you use one of the company's devices anymore. That's different from Google and Apple, which mostly offer products and online services meant to pull you further into their respective worlds. Microsoft, by comparison, wants to offer programs that follow you wherever you go.

One way Microsoft will do this is by making its Cortana virtual assistant work on competitors' devices, like phones powered by Google's Android, where it can listen and watch what you do, automatically adding calendar appointments to your Office calendar or monitoring email receipts for an expense report.

Microsoft did its best to drum up excitement for these bots, entreating developers to build their own through its "Microsoft Bot Framework," which allows for the creation of these virtual assistants that can hook into services like Skype or Twitter. They'll also be able to work with existing services and businesses, like Domino's Pizza, where a bot can send an order and pay by credit card without having to surf to the company's website.

To some people, Microsoft is helping software makers finally deliver on the promise of a digital assistant that can do pretty much anything. "It's starting to do what we thought those voice assistants would do in the first place," said Bob O'Donnell, president of Technalysis Research. We'll still use websites and apps of course, but these bots will offer another way to help us get things done.

Doug Benson, a product manager at file-sharing service Syncplicity, said Microsoft's emphasis on making its technology available for both Windows and competing devices made it more appealing.

But there are still some details other developers need to figure out. Chris Bohling, a lead developer at the medical laboratory company Quest Diagnostics, said he's concerned about whether a bot could handle the vast amounts of data his company manages. There are privacy concerns as well. Security "is always at the forefront of what we do," he said.

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Rise of the bots

The emphasis on bots marks the latest attempt by a tech company to introduce artificial intelligence into its products. Microsoft joins Facebook, Google, Apple and IBM, who are also trying to create software that can learn from what we do and, by extension, help us in our daily lives.

Facebook, for example, is teaching its AI how to recognize shapes in a photo so it can tell blind users what's on the screen. And Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, said he's trying to build his own Jarvis.

Early efforts, however, have yielded mixed results. Last week, Microsoft introduced Tay, a "teenage" AI chatbot designed to learn from our tweets. It took less than a day for Internet users to turn Tay into a Trump-loving, horny racist. Microsoft took Tay offline within a day of its release and said it's working out the kinks.

Nadella didn't shy away from the incident, saying that Microsoft wants to build technology that "gets the best of humanity, not the worst," a comment that elicited chuckles from the crowd.

Undeterred, the company said it's hoping to learn from the embarrassing episode and help create smarter apps in the future.

"That's how we're going to make progress," Nadella said.

CNET's Roger Cheng contributed to this story.