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How Microsoft's acquisition of Wand Labs will revitalise chatbot innovation

Shortly after buying LinkedIn for $26.2 Billion, Microsoft also acquired a lesser-known company called Wand Labs. With only 7 employees, Wand labs was brought in to help with Microsoft’s chatbots and natural AI language development.

Founded by Vishal Sharma in 2013, Wand Labs made an app to solve the problems with mobile apps - namely the difficulties that come with typing on small screens and the need to constantly switch between applications to get anything done.

Their app could translate all the formats from different apps into one language, which can be read by the other apps. Basically, it’s a Rosetta Stone for all your apps. Without their technology, an individual item (like a song, a contact, a receipt, etc.) cannot be sent from one app to another. With Wand, however, users can send and receive these items through any application.

Soon, the users asked for the ability to send and receive text with other users, like thank you notes, receipts, and other simple messages. So, Wand changed the app from a stream or feed format (like Facebook or Twitter) into a messaging platform where users could talk to one another.

With the new format, Wand developed a chatbot to aid with the messenger. Utilising its unique translating technology, along with modern neural networks, and other AI technologies, it made some very interesting breakthroughs - and that’s when Microsoft stepped in.

In a blog post, Microsoft's Corporate Vice President, David Ku said: “Wand Labs' technology and talent will strengthen our position in the emerging era of conversational intelligence, where we bring together the power of human language with advanced machine intelligence - connecting people to knowledge, information, services and other people in more relevant and natural ways.”

Microsoft is not new to chatbots. It has been using them for a while. In the 1990s, Microsoft made an animated paperclip named Clippy, which was designed to help users through the experience of using applications (like MS Word) However, the technology was too early and it was seen as a bit of a joke.

More recently, Microsoft released a chatbot named TAY (an acronym for ‘Thinking About You’). The team developed the AI chatbot for Twitter, where it hoped it would learn from the interactions it had with other Twitter users. Unfortunately, Twitter users bombarded the AI with inappropriate messages, which it began to tweet back. This caused an uproar in the press, and Tay was shut down after less than a day.

In a public apology, Microsoft’s Peter Lee says, “We must enter each one with great caution and ultimately learn and improve, step by step, and do this without offending people in the process. We will remain steadfast in our efforts to learn from this and other experiences."

But Microsoft is not shying away from their AI program. They even plan to bring Tay back when they have fixed the AI program because CEO Satya Nadella thinks they are the future of what he calls "conversation as a platform" (CaaP).

At the Microsoft Build Conference, Nadella said that their chatbots technology is, "a simple concept, yet it's very powerful in its impact. It is about taking the power of human language and applying it more pervasively to our computing." That’s why he brought in the Wand team to help strengthen these weaknesses in their chatbots and AI language development.

Here are the a few ways that Microsoft’s "conversation as a platform" technology plans to change, and how it will help your business:

Chatbots will learn to translate. After Microsoft bought Skype, they began work on Skype Translator, which can now translate between 7 different languages in real-time audio and over 50 languages in real-time text messaging. The ability to communicate across languages in real time, and see the other person’s reactions makes for a much better translation of ideas and personalities. Which will aid business relations across borders and cultures.

Microsoft is looking to improve this with their new Wand team to make chatbots that use neural networks. With this technology in place, every translation that Skype makes, will teach it how to translate other languages better as well. That means that when the chatbot translates from English to German, it will learn how to translate German to Chinese a little better too.

Chatbots will bring different apps under one language and streamline business processes and save a lot of time. A recent Netskope survey found that, on average, a business will use 613 different cloud apps every quarter. The amount of time lost by switching back and forth between applications can really add up. Wand will bring this technology to Microsoft, which will be the foundation of their vision of “conversation as a platform.”

Chatbots can be created or modified to serve any preferences that a business would need. Microsoft has launched the Bot Framework, where businesses can optimise chatbots for their needs, or even make bots that can create their own chatbots using Microsoft technology. This opens up the field for each business to make the most out of this technology.

Chatbots can be a personal assistant. Microsoft has sent half the Wand team to work on their new Cortana program, where they plan to make an AI personal assistant that lives in your phone. This assistant will be able to do everything for you; from answering basic questions, to making basic orders and purchases, and even ordering food for lunch. Microsoft plans to make all of these actions possible by voice commands or even by automation.

When Microsoft first showcased their Cortana program, they used Skype to demonstrate how chatbot personal assistant could connect to other bots and plan a full holiday only using voice commands and all without leaving the chat window. Nadella calls this "personal assistants calling on bots on your behalf."

This idea becomes even more relevant when smart (IoT) devices are linked through chatbots. When smart devices begin talking to each other through AI chatbots, they will be able to act and react off each other. The applications of this technology are limitless, and if they can be scaled up to a business to business level, it's easy to see the potential.

Chatbots are taking over customer service, and they’re doing a much better job of it now. The frustration of dealing with customer service bots is changing as AI and natural language programs improve. An AI call center can make personalised calls, retrieve pertinent information faster and more effectively, have one-on-one conversations with personalised responses, and gather all the best information from clients. And with improvements, they are likely to become the preferred method to get clear and concise information.

Microsoft is hedging all of its bets on AI chatbots and “conversation-as-a-platform” being the future of computing. With Wand on their team, the opportunities for businesses will grow as fast as the technology can.

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