For Skype users, putting together a travel itinerary on Expedia may soon feel like chatting with a live travel agent.
In a week studded with artificial intelligence (AI) announcements from Microsoft, the company gave a early peek at what the Skype Bot ecosystem will look like in 2017. Skype Bots made their debut in late March during this year's Build developer conference as part of a push by the software giant to usher in an era of conversational intelligence.
Using the Microsoft Bot Framework and the company's AI-enabled cloud services slate, developers can deliver personalized service using bots. Instead of calling a customer support number or filling out web forms, users can converse with these intelligent agents to get their questions answered or issues resolved and in some cases, complete entire transactions.
Next year, some of those transactions may include booking travel with Expedia on Skype.
"With the Expedia bot, you can easily search for hotels, quickly book, manage reservations, and confirm or cancel hotels and flights," wrote the Microsoft Skype team in a blog post. "And should you ever have a question the bot can't answer, Expedia is proud to be one of the first bots that allows calling directly to Expedia, free of charge."
Hipmunk, another travel website, is working on bringing some business-class appeal to its Skype bot. Microsoft hinted at an integration with the Concur Travel platform used by most large corporations to manage travel and business expenses. Concur, a subsidiary of German software maker SAP, acquired Hipmunk in October.
In addition to providing real-time translation services, Skype will soon encourage users pick up a new language. Skype, the Eton Institute, a provider of language training, and Learningonline.xyz have partnered to develop a bot that will help users break down language barriers on their own.
Meanwhile, Microsoft updated the developer community on the progress of its Bot Framework.
Subsequent updates will include bot connectors for Cortana Bing Location services and Microsoft Teams, the company's new Slack-like team collaboration product. Also new is a Microsoft Cognitive Services offering dubbed QnA Maker, a service business can use to turn FAQs into bots that can answer natural language questions.
"Leveraging the Microsoft Bot Framework tools and harnessing the Microsoft Graph, we are delivering new, innovative scenarios for people in their personal and professional lives," said Amritansh Raghav, corporate vice president of Skype, in a statement. "These innovations are showing up across apps, email, chat platforms, mobile devices and connected devices."
And after quietly releasing the Zo chatbot earlier this month, Microsoft made it official this week.
Microsoft's latest social AI chatbot is based on China's Xiaoice and Japan's Rinna. Zo is available on Kik, but the company expects bring the bot to Facebook Messenger and Skype.
In her (like Cortana, Microsoft refers to Zo as a she) short time online, Zo has already broken a record. The chatbot has logged the company's longest continual chatbot conversation, at 9 hours 53 minutes and 1,229 turns.
Microsoft also appears to have learned a lesson from Zo's ill-fated predecessor, Tay. Microsoft claims the new chatbot "has strong checks and balances in place to protect her from exploitation."