Microsoft is betting that the future of human-computer interaction will take a more conversational turn, even at work.
The software giant announced Dec. 13 the general availability release of two key cloud services that enable enterprise developers to build business-friendly AI chatbots, Azure Bot Service and Language Understanding (LUIS), a part of the Microsoft Cognitive Services suite of artificial intelligence (AI) offerings. Combined, they can be used to create intelligent conversational apps that work across a variety of platforms.
Azure Bot Service is used to create conversational interfaces for apps, websites and messaging platforms, or "channels" as Microsoft calls them. Developers can target a number of Microsoft and third-party apps, including Cortana, Skype, Slack and Facebook Messenger, without adapting their code for each one.
For the official release of Azure Bot Service, Microsoft added new Premium Channels that allow customers to communicate directly with their website or app users, eliminating the need to share information with public chat services. Customers also have access to open-source software that allows them to customize their chatbots.
Microsoft has also expanded Azure Bot Service's reach beyond the U.S., Western Europe and Southeast Asia. Now, the service is available in a total of nine Azure regions, including Ireland, Hong Kong, and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Meanwhile, LUIS allows developers to create bots that accept natural language input and can decipher what a user means, allowing applications to take appropriate action. Additionally, the system can also be used by developers with little experience in data science to create custom models that are tailored to specific verticals and ultimately build AI chatbots that support their organization's workflows and business objectives.
According to Lili Cheng, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Artificial Intelligence and Research Group, the general availability release of LUIS arrives with some major upgrades.
"Language Understanding (LUIS) now has an updated user interface and is available in more regions," wrote Cheng in a blog post. LUIS is now available from seven new Azure data center regions, including Texas, Virginia and Ireland, for a total of 12 regions.
LUIS also now features an expanded set of "500 intents and 100 entities, so developers can create more conversational experiences for their apps," added Cheng. Intent describes a task or action a user wishes to complete when uttering a sentence or command. Entities are extracted from a conversation, and include information that can be used to complete a task.
Microsoft isn't the only technology giant that's interested in putting AI chatbots to work.
On Nov. 16, Google launched an enterprise version of its Dialogflow Chatbot API. Businesses can use the API to enable speech recognition in their apps or IoT services, or build conversational interfaces for e-commerce sites, among many other use cases.
Startups have also jumped on the business chatbot bandwagon.
In March, New York City-based Dexter released a do-it-yourself chatbot creator, allowing organizations to build branded chatbot experiences. The low-code platform supports Facebook Messenger, Slack and Twitter.