AI, VR, Chatbots to Take Off in 2017 Microsoft Researchers Predict

Prominent Microsoft researchers share their tech predictions for an AI-enabled future that blurs the line between physical and virtual experiences.

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A new year is quickly approaching and Microsoft Research is offering a glimpse at what the tech scene has in store for 2017 along with some hints at the Redmond, Wash., tech giant's own priorities for the coming year.

This year, the company gathered prominent women researchers to share their thoughts on what to expect next year. Surprising nobody's who's been following Microsoft's software and cloud computing strategy of late, the company is betting big on artificial intelligence (AI).

"Deep learning is transforming many aspects of our technology, however deep learning algorithms today are still largely heuristic, based on the experience and intuition of leaders in the field," said Jennifer Chayes, managing director of Microsoft's New England and New York City research labs, in a Dec. 5 blog post. "In 2017, we will develop a more principled understanding of deep learning and hence more robust algorithms. The insights here will come from many fields, including the intersection of statistical physics and computer science."

Virtual reality (VR) will also make big strides, said Mar Gonzalez Franco, a researcher at the company's Redmond campus. She expects 2017 to usher in devices that perform a better body tracking, enabling more responsive and immersive VR experiences. "A positive outcome of this will be the ability to experience embodiment of virtual avatars from a first-person perspective," she said.

Mobile computing today largely consists of staring into a smartphone or tablet and poking around a selection of apps. Oriana Riva, another Microsoft researcher stationed at Redmond, believes intelligent bots will help users take their eyes off their iPhones. "We'll see fewer users installing apps on their devices and more apps turning into behind-the-scenes services for chatbots and personal digital assistants," she stated.

Karin Strauss, a senior Microsoft researcher, expects cloud providers to increase their use of custom hardware accelerators using field-programmable gate arrays to improve performance and stave off the effects of a Moore's Law slowdown. She also predicts a proliferation of both virtual- and augmented-reality (AR and VR) hardware to hit the market at all price points in 2017.

Microsoft is already preparing for that eventuality.

During the company's Windows 10 event in New York City on Oct. 26, Microsoft announced it was working with hardware partners Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP and Lenovo to offer VR headsets that run on off-the-shelf Windows PCs and have price tags starting at around $300, or about half of what today's headsets cost.

In terms of AR, the pricey HoloLens Development Edition ($3,000 USD) is finally outside the U.S. and Canada. The self-contained, Windows 10-powered device is now available in Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

Last week, the company announced that HoloLens is headed to Japan in early 2017. Early customers include Japan Airlines, which is using the hardware to develop proof-of-concept training applications for engine mechanics and burgeoning co-pilots.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...