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Microsoft buys conversational AI firm Semantic Machines

The tech pioneer doubles down on digital assistants and interactive chatbots like Cortana and Xiolice
Semantic Machines group photo
The team at Semantic Machines Inc

Microsoft is going head-to-head with Alphabet’s Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) in the interactive AI space, announcing Monday that it has acquired Semantic Machines Inc., a developer of what Microsoft calls “conversational AI.”

The tech pioneer didn’t disclose financial details, but in blog post on its official website, Chief Technology Officer of AI & Research David Ku laid out the thinking behind the move.

“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,” Ku wrote.

Leading Semantic’s team are tech entrepreneur Dan Roth, former Apple Inc (NASDAQ:AAPL) Chief Speech Scientist Larry Gillick, and two prominent academics: Professor Dan Klein of UC Berkeley and Professor Percy Liang of Stanford University.

A previous attempt at a conversational AI, called Tay, proved disastrous for Microsoft when Twitter users taught the chatbot to spout racist epithets and Nazi propaganda in less than 48 hours, forcing the experiment to be terminated.

Google recently showcased its Google Assistant that uses its Duplex AI technology to render its voice and speech patterns indiscernible form humans.

Microsoft will use the conversational AI with its digital assistant, Cortana, as well as social chatbots like Xiolice, which has had more than 30 billion conversations of up to 30 minutes with 200 million users across platforms in China, Japan, the US, India and Indonesia.

“For rich and effective communication, intelligent assistants need to be able to have a natural dialogue instead of just responding to commands. We call this ‘conversational AI,’” wrote Ku.

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