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Microsoft Gives Productivity Tools More AI Chops

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Microsoft on Wednesday announced new artificial intelligence features and functionality for several of its flagship products and services, including Office 365, Cortana and Bing, at an event in San Francisco. Harry Shum, EVP of Microsoft Artificial Intelligence and Research, demonstrated some of the new capabilities

Building on the progress the company has made in integrating AI over the past year, the new enhancements are designed to help users perform increasingly complex and complicated tasks.

“AI has come a long way in the ability to find information, but making sense of that information is the real challenge,” said Kristina Behr, a partner design and planning program manager with Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research group.

One of the advances, machine reading comprehension, will improve an AI-based system’s understanding of context — for example, recognizing that one’s cousin is a family member.

Search Benefits

Bing users will get more personalized answers, Microsoft said, such as restaurant recommendations based on travel destinations, or a greater variety of answers to offer different perspectives on a topic.

AI guidance might help users figure out the exact questions they want to ask if their search queries are too vague to deliver meaningful results.

Bing will utilize visual search as a way to help people seek information about items or objects in photos. This functionality will comprise the use of object recognition along with machine reading comprehension.

An Office AI

Microsoft announced improvements in AI integration with its Office 365 tools as well. The spreadsheet program Excel, for example, will employ machine learning as a way to analyze data and predict trends via pivot tables and charts. The new AI tools also will be able to extract insights from smaller sets of data.

Importantly, use of the new AI functionality won’t require more advanced training in Excel for users to determine which sets of data should be used to gain deeper insights.

More Conscious Cortana

Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana will get an upgrade as well, allowing it to make use of machine reading comprehension to summarize search results. Cortana also will be able to sort through a user’s emails to identify the most important ones and even read them aloud during a commute, for example. Use of that functionality will extend to emails from multiple accounts, including on competing services such as Gmail.

Cortana also has been enhanced with “skills chaining,” allowing it to suggest additions to one’s calendar after tickets have been booked, for example.

Astute AI

These AI advances likely will be subtle and may go unnoticed by many users.

“AI will creep more and more into our lives,” said Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics.

“Ideally it will help to make tools like Bing, Cortana and Office 365 more userful,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“This is the good AI, not the Terminator AI,” noted Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“In most cases, AI functions will be transparent to users just like they are in search engines today,” he told TechNewsWorld.

The AI functionality simply makes the tools more efficient and useful.

“Think of this as reducing some of the simple tasks — not the human part of the equation,” McGregor suggested, “and think about intelligent digital assistants and word predictors or spell checkers that are more reliable than the ones we have today. This will be the most common form of AI — embedded solutions that make the tools we use better, from search engines to scientific research.”

How Far to Take It

Although the most extreme AI danger may lie in the rise of machines that overpower human controls, there are more subtle menaces to consider when it comes to the place it will take in our lives.

“It is upon us to draw a line,” said Entner.

“Examples like Google and its all-encompassing ‘data kraken’ make it clear how blurry the line is between really useful and really creepy — like when your Android phone constantly asks you if you are actually shopping at the store you are at,” he pointed out. “Big brother [could be] watching all the time

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