​Microsoft's 2016 predictions: Expect the year of machine-aided wit

Expect your conversations with friends to be mediated by bots in the not distant future, according to experts from Microsoft.

Microsoft Research's Lili Cheng: "Our online conversations will increasingly be mediated by conversation assistants who will help us laugh and be more productive."

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Microsoft's top researchers think next year will be a "golden age of technological advancement", bringing major progress in artificial intelligence and even machines that make us laugh.

Microsoft is betting big on AI with initiatives such as Project Oxford, Cortana and its AI chatbot Xiaoice.

So it's little surprise to see that the Redmond company's researchers think 2016 will be a turning point for the technology that sets the stage for it to transform everything from human conversation to employment, industry and scientific discovery over the next decade.

According to Lili Cheng, an engineer at Microsoft Research NExT, humans can expect to gain machine-aided wit in 2016 that "will blur the way we think about our computers, phones and our memories and relationships".

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"Our online conversations will increasingly be mediated by conversation assistants who will help us laugh and be more productive," she said.

Conversely, it might not be machines that come to the aid of humans, but vice versa. Hsiao-Wuen Hon of Microsoft Research Asia sees a big uptake of AI coupled with "human-in-the-loop" personal-assistant services.

Eric Horvitz of Microsoft Research Redmond Lab expects to see more natural conversations with computers and smartphones due to the advent of fluid, multi-step conversation dialog with machines.

"Personal assistants become more genuinely helpful by understanding such important things in peoples' lives as the tasks they work on and the commitments they make to others," Horvitz said.

Looking further ahead, Kate Crawford, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, thinks AI agents such as Microsoft's Xiaoice will be so human-like that, "We will require them to have the same ethical and legal relationships that we have with doctors, lawyers and therapists."

On the subject of human-computer interaction, 2016 will also be the year of the stylus. According to Bill Buxton, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, the stylus will "assume a broadly supported and appropriate place in the mosaic of how we interact with digital devices".

A key advancement in security in 2016, according to Brian LaMacchia, director or security and cryptography at Microsoft Research, will be a demonstration of an encrypted web connection that is resistant to cracking by quantum computers.

Despite devastating recent hacks and the relative ease with which hackers have bypassed existing defences, Sriram Rajamani of Microsoft Research India, remains upbeat about the prospect of a hacker-proof hardware.

"We will see the start of a new generation of systems solutions that guarantee security even if the operating system or other infrastructure gets compromised by hackers," he said, pointing to Intel's Software Guard Extension as one example.

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