Microsoft officially launches Zo.ai, more bot-building tools

This year was a big one for Microsoft, across the company, in expanding its AI footprint.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft launched officially its latest chat bot, Zo.ai, along with a new external AI web site with information on its various AI-related projects.

Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft officials talked up the company's momentum across its various AI projects and initiatives at its AI day in San Francisco on December 13.

A week ago, word leaked that Microsoft was providing early access to users on Kik to Zo. Zo is a successor to Microsoft's ill-fated Tay.ai chatbot, which the company revoked shortly after its launch earlier this year after users got it to spew racist, hate-filled comments. Users last week found Zo to be a lot more limited and locked down than Tay, which is unsurprising given how quickly Tay spiraled out of control.

Microsoft officials said today there are already 115,000 Zo.ai users, just a week after its unofficial soft launch.

In September this year, Microsoft created a combined AI and research group of about 5,000 people under the direction of Executive Vice President Harry Shum. Today, Microsoft took the wraps off a AI-focused news site meant to bring together into a single place the latest links, resources and updates on the company's various AI-related products and services.

The company also made available a preview of a new Calendar.Help preview designed to make Cortana, Microsoft's personal digital assistant, more useful in scheduling meetings. Technology that Microsoft acquired when it bought AI-scheduling startup Genee in August this year is key to this new feature.

Microsoft has been stepping up its work across the company in 2016 on a number of AI-related fronts, including conversational computing/bots, digital assistants, cognitive services and expanded intelligence and presence with Cortana.

At Build 2016 in late March 2016, Microsoft kicked off its "conversation as a platform" campaign. The core concept of that campaign was "human language is the new user interface layer," as CEO Satya Nadella told conference attendees.At Build, Microsoft launched a new Bot Framework, allowing developers to build text bots, as well as bots that can will be able to interact with users using video, animations, and ultimately holograms. A few months later, Microsoft unveiled a preview of its bot-as-a-service, which connected the Microsoft Bot Framework to Azure.

Today at its AI Day in San Francisco, Microsoft demonstrated a bot designed to work with its Microsoft Teams Slack competitor. That bot, known as the WhoBot, is designed to know who someone is based on the documents they write and the conversations they have. Microsoft officials said today that Skype can now deliver talking bots with the general availability of the Skype calling API.

Microsoft also is making available a new Cortana Skills Kit and Cortana Devices software development kit (SDK) meant to bring more developers into the Microsoft bot and assistant fold. The Cortana Skills Kit will allow developers to take advantage of bots created with the Microsoft Bot Framework and publish them to Cortana as a new skill or repurpose code from an Alexa skill to create a Cortana skill.

More recently, Microsoft made available an open-sourced beta of the second version of its Cognitive Toolkit, This developer toolkit is to meant help with speech, image recognition, and search-relevance tasks. Today, Microsoft announced a new cognitive service called QnAMaker.

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