Hey Cortana, Microsoft is Buying a Conversational AI Startup

Posted on May 21, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Smart Home, Windows 10 with 27 Comments

Hey Cortana, Microsoft is Buying a Conversational AI Startup

The Semantic Machines team may have one-upped Cortana

Furthering its push into conversational AI (artificial intelligence), Microsoft announced this morning that it has purchased Semantic Machines, an AI startup, for an undisclosed sum. But this purchase may have a chilling effect on Cortana, Microsoft’s little-used personal digital assistant.

“Semantic Machines has developed a revolutionary new approach to building conversational AI,” Microsoft corporate vice president David Ku explains in the announcement. “Their work uses the power of machine learning to enable users to discover, access and interact with information and services in a much more natural way, and with significantly less effort.”

Curiously, a number of publications are claiming that Microsoft will use this acquisition to improve Cortana, its digital personal assistant. But the Microsoft announcement doesn’t say that: Instead, it suggests that the Semantic Machines technology is superior to its own conversational AI work with Cortana. And it says that the firm will now combine its in-house efforts with Semantic Machines’ technology to “deliver powerful, natural and more productive user experiences that will take conversational computing to a new level.”

This is notable because Microsoft has recently demoted Cortana from being a standalone assistant—which might be found in phones, PCs, smart speakers, cars, and elsewhere—to being an “assistance” technology that is built-in to other products and can integrate with popular assistants.

Cortana is not going away, according to Cortana head J Soltero, who was recently interviewed by Mary Jo Foley. But it will likely merge more into Microsoft’s other AI/machine learning efforts and be promoted as a set of capabilities and skills, and be less forward-facing as a brand.

To that end, Microsoft says that it will establish a conversational AI center of excellence in Berkeley, California to “push forward the boundaries of what is possible in language interfaces.”

Notably, that’s where Semantic Machines is based.


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