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Microsoft looks to bots to make employees more productive

Microsoft is continuing its quest to try to make workers more productive via a variety of bots, including SwitchBot and Calendar.help.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

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Microsoft is working on multiple chat bots it's counting on to make employees more productive.

The company announced two years ago its Calendar.help scheduling bot, which remains in preview. The company also is working on another conversational bot, named "SwitchBot," that's designed to improve workers' focus.

(Credit: Microsoft)

Information about SwitchBot was made public in the form of a research paper published on April 21 for the 2018 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

SwitchBot is a Skype bot that aims to help workers detach and then reengage at the start and end of their workdays. It's goal: To make workers more productive by getting workers to better use their time on and off the job.

Microsoft researchers developed a detachment and reattchment dialog framework and tested it for a couple weeks with 34 information workers. The findings: Workers sent fewer emails after work hours and spent a larger percentage of their first hour at work using productivity applications than they normally would.

"Productivity gains were better sustained when conversations focused on work-related emotions," according to the researchers involved with the SwitchBot project.

Microsoft researchers built SwitchBot using the Microsoft Bot Framework and its machine-learning service, Language Understanding and Intent Service (LUIS). They designed task-centric dialogues (such as "What did you work on today?") and emotion-centric dialogues ("How did you feel about work today?").

One of the authors of the paper is Jaime Teevan, who is Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's technical adviser and a former principal researcher with Microsoft Research AI. Teevan also has been part of the group that has been working on Calendar.help.

Calendar.help is a chatbot designed to help users schedule their meetings via a series of structured workflows that are broken into a series of microtasks. Calendar.help, which is integrated with Cortana, works with Office 365, Outlook.com, and Google calendars.

Calendar.help works over email and can be used to request meetings, coordinate meeting times, book conference rooms.By asking Cortana questions, such as "Can you help us book a room for a 30-minute meeting next week?" or "Schedule Tuesday at 3 p.m. for us to Skype," users can make Cortana work similar to a human personal assistant.

Microsoft Research has been working on Calendar.help since at least February 2015. Even though it's still listed as an "exclusive preview," Microsoft's web page for the technology claims it has "shipped as a joint project with the Outlook team."

In a Harvard Business Review article from last summer, a couple of the Microsoft employees working on Calendar.help discussed how difficult it is to get this kind of a virtual assistant right. And in a 2017 paper on Calendar.help, the researchers noted:

"Calendar.help's three-tiered architecture could be seen as an intermediate stage on the long and technically challenging path to full artificial intelligence, at least for narrow domains like scheduling. Despite advances in natural language processing,extracting information from free-text is still error-prone and algorithms often make mistakes that seem trivial to humans."

Microsoft still seemingly has big ambitions for finding new apps and services that will improve worker productivity. Last year, officials were still pointing toward efforts to make virtual assistants, computers, and even the work spaces housing them smarter and better able to take advantage of evolving AI technologies.

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