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Microsoft's wild vision for the future puts conversations at the heart of computing

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Robots talking to humans talking to robots

Microsoft's AI chatbot Tay may have grabbed headlines last week when it went rogue on Twitter, but Microsoft has far bigger plans for its bots. At the Build developer conference, CEO Satya Nadella unveiled the company's grand vision of "conversation as a platform" — making bots that understand natural language the next big way to use computers.

"[It's] a simple concept that's very powerful in its impact," said Nadella, adding, "We think this can have as profound an impact as the previous platform shifts have had." By this, he means that conversations could follow the graphical user interface, the mouse, and touch screens, as the next big way to interact with computers. Microsoft is not thinking small here.

"Bots are like new applications that you can converse with."

On stage, Nadella explained that this vision for the future of computing revolves around three principal actors: humans, digital assistants, and bots. Humans are obviously at the heart of things, he said, but digital assistants, like Microsoft's Cortana, will be "always with you across all your devices," getting to know your personal preferences, likes, and dislikes. Chatbots, meanwhile, will act as the go-between between people, assistants, and other systems, taking care of tasks like online shopping.

Microsoft built a Domino's chatbot on stage

"Bots are like new applications that you can converse with," said Nadella, adding that this system might include "personal assistants calling on bots on your behalf." The company showcased how this might work using Skype, demonstrating how Cortana can team up with various bots to plan a holiday — all without leaving the chat window. The company also unveiled what it calls the Microsoft Bot Framework: a toolkit of code and machine learning programs to let anyone build their own chatbot.

Microsoft isn't alone in exploring this territory. Rival digital assistants like Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri have been slowly introducing people to the idea that sometimes it's quicker to talk to your computer then use a mouse, keyboard, or touch interface. Facebook is also developing its own digital assistant, M, that lives inside Messenger, and Chinese messaging app WeChat has created chatbots that let you order a taxi or book cinema tickets by texting.

On stage, though, Nadella outlined how conversations could be woven into computing in a way that was more ambitious and articulate than we've seen from other companies. Microsoft doesn't just want to offer smart chatbots, it wants to help everyone build them — with its own digital assistant, Cortana, acting as the connective tissue between these programs. "We want to build intelligence that augments human abilities," said Nadella. "It’s not going to be about man versus machine, it’s going to be about man with machines."

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