It’s the year of chatbots! After Microsoft announced Microsoft Bot Framework at BUILD and Facebook announced Bots for Messenger, Google is turning Google Now into a chatbot with Google Assistant.
Currently part of its Allo app, Google Assistant interacts with users via an ongoing stream of text and images. Unlike Cortana, Google Assistant suggests topics for users to interact with suggests follow-up topics to continue the conversation. It also keeps a running tally of the conversation, allowing a user to scroll back and continue it from an earlier point in the conversation. Expectedly, Google Assistant will replace Google Now for Android.
According to Harry Shum, the Executive Vice President at Microsoft in charge of the new AI and Research Group, Cortana was originally designed to quickly interact with the user, then get out of the way. However, in an interview with PCWorld, Shum said he hasn’t ruled out adding a Cortana chatbot to its roster of digital assistants. Microsoft would still want Cortana to have some form of personality, like Siri but unlike Google Now/Google Assistant. Shum also acknowledged that chatbots, with their back-and-forth exchanges, could significantly boost engagement.
Interestingly, when the Microsoft Bot Framework was announced, Satya Nadella unveiled his ‘Conversations as a Platform’ strategy and Derrick Connell, Corporate Vice President, Bing, envisioned Cortana as an arbiter negotiating between the users and third-party bots.
Microsoft’s first attempt at an ‘assistant’ was long way back with the much mocked, yet somewhat useful at the time, Clippy. Then there was the failed Microsoft Bob. Now, Cortana of course is more modern as well as intelligent and context aware.
Last year, Microsoft unveiled an AI-powered Twitter chatbot, Tay. The experimental project had to be retired in just a day after it was trolled to parrot abusive and derogatory tweets.
The company though found success in XiaoIce (pronounced ‘Shao ice’). Unveiled in September 2014 just about the time Cortana appeared, XiaoIce was positioned as a friend that users could add onto Weibo and other Chinese social networking sites. The strength of XiaoIce is that it is far more emotional and human-like. To make sure she is natural and sound more human-like, the team at Bing indexed over seven million conversations with Xiaolce.
Microsoft later brought XiaoIce to the Japanese market and Shum has shared that the company was thinking about something for the US market.
Recently, Microsoft placed the Cortana and Bing product teams inside the same organization as Microsoft Research. The new Microsoft AI and Research Group, led by Shum, has over 5,000 computer scientists and engineers, and would be looking at architecturing the next generation of digital assistants.
What are your thoughts on chatbots and digital assistants and which paradigm do you prefer between question and answer or a conversation? Tell us in the comments!