Microsoft’s Build conference for 2016 took place a couple of weeks ago, and true to form, there were a number of killer announcements and reveals for a number of services, tools, and frameworks, many of which are available today. Not one to ever really post something when it’s actually relevant, here are a few of the things that jumped out at me from the event.
Microsoft hasn’t made any secret of their work in the field of Natural Language Processing. They released Q&A as one of the key features of Power BI, enabling users to query their data and generate visualisations using near to natural language. Then Cortana came along, using the same NLP algorithms and knowledge-base to enable Windows Phone users to command their mobile with their voice. Then, as the capabilities advanced, Cortana was introduced to Windows 10, and became a key part of the latest MS Operating system, all working from the same platform, and all that experience garnered throughout the last few years.
“Human language is the new UI” - Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella
During his keynote address, MS CEO Satya Nadella gave a key insight into the company’s direction: “Human language is the new UI,” he said, and voice-controlled “bots are the new apps.” Microsoft’s vision is for users to interact with bots via natural language, who will then interpret the user commands and relay these to the computer. “Clunky” web forms and cluttered interfaces will be replaced by a new, simpler way to interact with computers.
It’s a grand vision, and while we’re definitely a long way away from the talking computers of Star Trek, Microsoft has made some excellent strides in this direction, not least with the underlying platform behind Cortana, which has now been released to developers as the Language Understanding Intelligent Service (LUIS). This is currently in beta (and free to use), and is definitely worth checking out if you haven’t already: https://www.luis.ai/.
Speaking of bots, I’m sure everyone has already read about the exploits of Tay. Microsoft’s Twitter-bot, built as a demo and test for their new Bot Framework quickly became famous as “she” learned from other Twitter users, and rapidly degenerated from an innocent, naive teenage girl, into a racist, abusive and downright maniacal representation of all that’s wrong with the human race. Thank God they didn’t give her access to nuclear launch codes or it would be Skynet all over again!
In saying that, Microsoft’s new Bot Framework is a very impressive product, and provides the brain to enable developers to create their own bots to easily integrate with lots of different services, such as Skype, email, Slack, and many more. Taking the chilling vision of Tay’s future out of the equation, the availability of such a framework is an excellent idea, given the number of extremely poor “chat” programs out there. And integration with other channels means developers can easily add smart chat functionality to anything they build, furthering the case for natural-language human-computer interaction.
Okay, so this one’s been making a lot of headlines. There’s a fair bit of skepticism about how good it will be, but having Bash running on Windows 10 brings some really excellent developer utilities to Windows, which previously has been relying on .NET-based copies of core Linux utilities. Couple this with the recent announcement about SQL Server being launched for Linux, and it’s clear that Microsoft these days is about getting people access to the best things, regardless of their platform of choice.
Power BI leads natively on iOS, SQL Server is coming to Linux, and now Bash on Windows. Modern-day Microsoft is a fair way away from the MS of old.
The Universal Windows Platform (UWP) has had a lot of coverage lately, some good, some bad. However, Microsoft is taking a really admirable approach in trying to save developers time (who wants to develop an app across every different form factor) and improve continuity of user experience across devices. The UWP is a great idea, but the key issue has yet again been the availability of apps on the platform.
So, it’s welcome news that at Build this year, MS announced that they’re providing a mechanism for developers to port their Win32 and .NET-based apps to the UWP. Many intrepid souls have already shown this working with old school PC games, and other custom apps, but it’s great news and opens up the worlds largest collection of apps (or applications, if you were around before the millennium) to the new portable Windows platform.
And in other great cross-platform news, Continuum, Microsoft’s “convert your Windows Phone to a PC-lite” feature, is adding support for the Xbox One controller, meaning that when you’re away from home you just need to pack your controller and your display adaptor to turn your phone into a portable console that can hook up to a hotel TV. Sure, you’ll be limited to phone-based games, but stuff like Halo: Spartan Assault should work really well, assuming they add controller support.
And finally, one of (in my opinion), the most impressive projects out of Microsoft Research in recent years, Project Oxford, has graduated to a full release. The collection of machine learning services offers easy-to-use APIs that allow you to provide image recognition, image-based emotional detection, and even identify a breed of dog via their web-servicified (not a word) machine learning models. There are a huge number of amazing possibilities with these services, just check out the video below to see what one MS staffer created for his smart glasses:
Project Oxford has been released commercially under the name Cognitive Services, and is available here: https://www.microsoft.com/cognitive-services/en-us/apis.
So, in summary, a really exciting and interesting Build conference this year, with a strong focus on creating intelligent software that can really learn from user behaviour, and provide a better, and easier, user experience across all devices. There are some really grand ideas being thrown about, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on things to see how they progress over the next year. I really like where Microsoft’s vision is heading, the big question is whether they can deliver on all of the promise, or if they’ll fall short.