Microsoft promises new 'conversational engine' to make virtual assistants, including Cortana, more useful

Microsoft is using technology from its Semantic Machines acquisition to make virtual assistants better able to engage in more natural conversations.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft officials haven't talked much about how the company planned to use technology from its 2018 Semantic Machines acquisition -- until this week, that is. At Build 2019, which kicks off May 6, Microsoft is showing and telling more about its latest conversational technology plans.

In one of the potentially most razzle-dazzle demos at Build this week, Microsoft is going to show off how voice-assisted calendar management using Cortana can be more natural and capable. Microsoft is promising to show how new kinds of multi-turn, multi-domain, and multi-agent experiences will be possible because of some Semantic Machines-related multi-turn-related advances, coupled with work from Microsoft Research. 

Microsoft plans to integrate its new conversational engine into Cortana and to make the technology available to third-party developers through the Microsoft Bot Framework and other Azure services.

Microsoft execs say that, currently, virtual agents can't really combine skills or maintain the context of one interaction into the next. That means, when someone says "Cortana, what's the weather today?" followed by "How about next week?", Cortana doesn't understand the omitted context and commands, so it can't follow along and provide relevant responses.

Microsoft officials said they believe that, at some point in the future, every organization will have its own agents with their own contexts, the same way they have their own websites and apps today. And these unique agents will be able to interoperate seamlessly. 

When Microsoft bought Semantic Machines, officials said its technology would help with full-duplex advances in both chatbots and Cortana. Full duplex, or the ability to have human-like verbal conversations, is something Microsoft also has been working on as part of its Xiaoice chatbot in China.

Credit: BMW


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  • At Build, Microsoft also is announcing new additions to the Bot Framework to enable developers to handle more complex dialogs with users and to support more natural language interactions. Among the updates making this happen are an improvement to the dialog management process so they use adaptive dialogs. In addition, language generation will allow developers to decouple language resources for their bots and manage those resources in separate files, thereby avoiding the need to hard-code bot responses. 

    At Build this week, Microsoft also is making some new additions to its Virtual Assistant Solution Accelerator, which is its template and tool collection that allows users to build personalized, customized bots. Among the new features is a preview of a skills template for creating new skills which can be added to assistants. The skills in the public preview include ones for calendar, email, tasks, point of interest, and automotive skills. 

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