Microsoft Buys Conversational AI Startup

Though artificial intelligence (AI) has progressed by leaps and bounds, allowing a variety of intelligent, self-governing systems, augmented reality games and virtual personal assistants to flourish, there is a still a lot more that can be achieved. Technology giant Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) has announced its purchase of Semantic Machines Inc., a startup that is developing the fundamental AI technology required to make conversational computing a reality.

The Berkeley, California-based Semantic has adopted a unique approach to AI—it uses machine learning to add the relevant context to the conversations involving chatbots. It involves collecting information by AI, understand the context, and then attempt to apply it to the future dialogue.

For instance, it is easy to fire up the virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana or Google Assist on your device and ask for a weather report, play a song or send a text message. However, such present-day applications are task specific. A void exists for these devices to have a natural, free-flowing conversation with a human–in the present form they can only simply respond to a command. Semantic attempts to bridge this gap. Their approach utilizes the power of machine learning and enables the discovery, access and interaction with information and services in a much more natural, free-flowing manner. (See also: Microsoft Studying Multilingual Speech to Humanize Cortana.)

Looking Forward to a Smart Conversation?

The acquisition builds on Microsoft’s continued efforts in speech recognition and natural language understanding. Microsoft envisions a goal “to expand our vision of computers all around us to a world where they could see, hear talk and understand as humans.”

Various approaches are being tried by the technology giants. For instance, Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) mentioned last month its plans to give Alexa, its virtual assistant, some “memory” that will help in adding context to its conversation with human users. Similarly, Alphabet Inc.'s Google (GOOGL) also announced progress with prototypes that made the human user feel that they were interacting with another human while using Googles' virtual assistants.

While Amazon and Google already have AI-powered personal assistants that easily respond to voice-activated speakers, Microsoft does not have any such smart speaker of its own. It did release the Invoke smart speaker in 2016 in partnership with the audio company Harman Kardon, but it did not gain much traction.

“With the acquisition of Semantic Machines, we will establish a conversational AI center of excellence in Berkeley to push forward the boundaries of what is possible in language interfaces. Combining Semantic Machines’ technology with Microsoft’s own AI advances, we aim to deliver powerful, natural and more productive user experiences that will take conversational computing to a new level,” said David Ku, chief technology officer at Microsoft AI and Research.

The financials of the transaction were not disclosed. (See also: Amazon's Alexa, Microsoft's Cortana Gain Ground on Apple's Siri.)