Microsoft might not be the first company that comes to mind when you think about artificial intelligence. In the race to build a prominent AI platform that people interact with on a daily basis, Microsoft’s AI-powered virtual assistant, Cortana, lags behind Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.

In a recent survey of American adults, Cortana usage on mobile phones even lagged behind Samsung’s Bixby, ranking fifth out of the five major brands vying to get AI onto smartphones, in large part because Cortana lacks the automatic distribution on mobile phones that Siri and Google Assistant enjoy. But behind the scenes, in ways that might not be as high profile as Siri or Alexa, Microsoft is already an AI powerhouse, officials say.

“We’ve already integrated AI into PowerPoint in lots and lots of little ways that people don’t even notice, but that make it easier for them to get their job done,” said Lorraine Bardeen, the general manager of Microsoft’s Mixed Reality business, which is bringing AI to devices such as Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality headset. “So they might start to insert something [in PowerPoint] and the AI will show them the three most recent things they inserted, or they might start an email and [the AI contribution] will be, ‘Here are the five people you most write to starting with the letter L’.”

Hiding AI functions inside business applications, such as Office, is part of a broader Microsoft strategy that the company’s CEO, Satya Nadella, describes as “commoditising” artificial intelligence, to make sure that the company’s 35 or so cloud-based AI services – known as Azure Cognitive Services and ranging from speech and vision services to machine translation – get deeply embedded into all sorts of applications that might otherwise appear to have nothing to do with AI. “When it comes to AI breakthroughs, Microsoft has had many,” Mr Nadella told software developers attending Microsoft’s Build conference in Seattle last week.  “But who cares about the breakthroughs we achieve.

What matters is, can we translate these into frameworks, tools and services and put them into [the hands of] developers so [they] can take AI and have impact in every industry and every application. “To us that’s what important, in some sense commoditising AI, to going from talking about AI being in the hands of a few companies to being in a place where AI is everywhere. Read more from…

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