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Microsoft is using AI to bring nuance to our search results

The software giant wants Bing search to give you more helpful answers, Outlook to identify important emails and Word to help you write smarter sounding memos.

Microsoft AI chief Harry Shum
Microsoft AI chief Harry Shum says the company is fulfilling Bill Gates' vision of a computer that can understand us.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

If you ask Google "Is Hamilton a good musical?" it will send back a link to Quora, the question-and-answer service, where people ask that same question.

The next link, a story published in Slate last year, is an interview with a critic who argues why the Pulitzer-, Grammy- and Tony-winning musical isn't revolutionary (their pun, not ours).

Microsoft thinks it can do better. Beginning Wednesday, the company will start giving you more nuanced answers, powered by artificial intelligence software designed to identify different viewpoints.

"It's not only that you see more answers pop up to the top of the search results, but you'll get more perspectives as well,"  Harry Shum, Microsoft's head of AI, said during an event in San Francisco on Wednesday. "Search has really moved on. It's no longer 10 blue links."

This may seem somewhat in the weeds. After all, Bing represents less than a third of desktop search market share. And who cares how a search result shows up on the page as long as it's helpful?

Of course, the prominence of fact-checking websites and debates about "fake news" is one very good reason. In a world where facts themselves are up for debate, Microsoft positions its Bing search engine, and the "intelligent answers" AI that powers it, as a way to break through both the noise and the bubble we're all in.

"At Microsoft, we believe it's important to understand where information comes from," said Kristina Behr, who works with partner companies for Microsoft's AI efforts.

A self-described vegan, Behr typed "facts about kale" into Bing and got back a list of bullet point facts drawn from multiple sites and results, including a new partnership with Reddit to draw on information from the social network's famous "Ask Me Anything" Q&A sessions. Those have included everyone from former President Barack Obama and revered theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking to a vacuum repair technician.

After she typed "Is good kale good for you?" Bing offered two answers, one pro and one con -- just in time to debate it with family during the holidays. "So I don't have to live in a bubble where kale is amazing," she said.

Bing pro-kale vs anti-kale

Microsoft's Kristin Behr shows how Bing search results show different views on kale -- beyond "yuck."

Stephen Shankland/CNET

These efforts are just the latest example of how Microsoft is using AI to improve its products. The company has been pushing this technology in all sorts of ways, including conversational bot programs designed to help companies more easily communicate with customers via a computer.

The company has also used AI to amplify apps like its Seeing AI, which translates documents, recognizes friends and reads document text out loud. Now, Microsoft said its app will be able to identify currency and colors and to generate a tone to identify the brightness of your surroundings.

Microsoft said it's still finding other ways for AI to improve its products, including automatic email sifting to find the most important messages, Excel spreadsheet data sorting and acronym finding so your writing sounds smarter.

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