Adopting artificial intelligence (AI) into actual business practices can be difficult, but Microsoft Corp. is looking to change that, announcing several technology updates aimed at helping businesses more easily adopt AI.

At a San Francisco event on Tuesday, Microsoft revealed new ways for ways for companies to take advantage of Microsoft’s AI through Azure, open-source tools to build customized virtual assistants and guidelines to help developers keep ethical AI practices in mind. ITWC was able to speak to Microsoft’s senior director of communications for AI, Dave Forstrom, before the event and find out more about more about these new updates.

It was a couple years ago that Microsoft announced its new AI ambitions, said Forstrom, wanting to democratize the technology and make it both accessible and valuable to everyone. Now that enterprise-grade AI is more readily available for businesses, there is the expectation that more leaders will start implementing it into everyday business practices and products.

However, according to a report from PwC, only four per cent of technology executives say that they have successfully implemented AI. Another report from Gartner found likewise, that only four per cent of chief information officers (CIOs) have implemented AI, however, that report estimates that by 2020, 85 per cent of CIOs will be piloting AI programs, (currently, only 21 per cent have pilot projects).

With this in mind, Forstrom says Microsoft geared Tuesday’s event around making adoption easier.

Microsoft’s AI for enterprises

It announced containers for Azure Cognitive Services, stating in a blog post that “it is the first company to enable cognitive services to be used in containers.” By ‘containerizing’ cognitive services Microsoft is making it easier for a company to use the Azure Cognitive Services tools no matter the operating system and even if it can’t easily access the public cloud.

Microsoft’s containerized AI tools allow for “optical character recognition to find words in images,” language detection of exact key phrases and sentiments in text, as well as image facial recognition.

“It’s about making AI accessible,” Forstrom

Azure Cognitive Services also now has a new neural text-to-speech system, “which generates digital voices that are nearly indistinguishable from recordings of people,” the blog stated, “this technology can make interactions with chatbots and virtual assistants more natural and engaging, convert digital texts such as e-books into audiobooks and enhance services like in-car navigation.”

Microsoft is also announced at the event an open-source system to help enterprises build personalized virtual assistants or chatbots in a matter of minutes, stated the blog.

“The field of virtual assistants has been a hot space for several years,” Forstrom said, “and with this new solution accelerator companies will be able to create virtual assistants that are tailored to specific brands…build out language skills that are more aligned with how that brand would talk, whether that’s more casual or business oriented.”

Reaffirming its commitment to conversational AI, Microsoft also announced Wednesday that it has signed an agreement to acquire XOXCO, a software company known for its conversational AI and bot development. The company has been in the industry since 2013 and helped create Slack’s bot that helps schedule meetings.

Don’t forget ethical AI

When discussions about widespread adoption of AI pop up its natural nowadays to also here talk about ethical AI and ensuring the development of these technologies address issues like built-biases. For its part, Microsoft also announced at the event bot development tools and guidelines to aid its customers as they use Microsoft AI tools to build their own virtual assistants.

“We’ve taken all the work we at Microsoft have done over the years,” said Forstrom, “and created 10 guidelines to help companies know how to deploy bots that create trust with customers.” He notes that distrust of chatbots and the AI backing them has been one of the biggest barriers to the implementation of conversational AI.

Microsoft’s 10 guidelines for developers of conversational AI:

  • Articulate the purpose of your bot and take special care if your bot will support consequential use cases
  • Be transparent about the fact that you use bots as part of your product or service
  • Ensure a seamless hand-off to a human where the human-bot exchange leads to interactions that exceed the bot’s competence
  • Design your bot so that it respects relevant cultural norms and guards against misuse
  • Ensure your bot is reliable
  • Ensure your bot treats people fairly
  • Ensure your bot respects user privacy
  • Ensure your bot handles data securely
  • Ensure your bot is accessible and;
  • Accept responsibility

Companies ahead of the curve

While studies show that enterprises are struggling to adopt AI, there are many examples of companies that have been successful. For example, famous beer producer Anheuser-Busch InBev apparently joined Microsoft executives on-stage at the San Francisco event to talk about how it is changing its data system and building a new worldwide analytics platform through Microsoft Azure. Golf startup Arccos has also been working with Microsoft to create an AI golf caddie to give golfers advice on shots.

Here in Canada, we’ve also seen a number of businesses in the past few years start using AI-based chatbots. Lush Cosmetics, McDonald’s, and Mastermind Toys are all working with Toronto-based company, Chatter Research, to use AI chatbots to replace old-school customer survey methods.

Roots Canada updated its website earlier this year, using Salesforce.com Inc.’s AI-powered customer relationship management (CRM) platform, Einstein, to run its customer experiences, as our sister site ITBusiness.ca has previously reported.

Even WestJet Airlines Ltd. got in on the AI action, introducing an AI-powered chatbot for Facebook Messenger that helps travelers with finding travel destinations, day-of travel information and ‘discovery inspiration’ for trips.

While the enterprise-grade AI may not be as widespread as it may seem Gartner’s study predicts that AI-generated business value will more than triple from the $1.2 trillion it is in 2018, to more than $3.9 trillion by 2022.