Microsoft has agreed to acquire Semantic Machines, a Berkeley California-based startup that develops conversational AI systems that help bots speak to humans naturally, in a bid to improve its Cortana voice assistant. This is a big win for Microsoft because Semantic Machines' team includes some serious talent, as some of the team members have worked on the core systems that powered Google Now, while others came on board from speech recognition heavyweight, Nuance Communications.
The move comes at a time when conversational AI's relevance is steadily growing: chatbots, smart speakers, and intelligent mobile assistants all stand to benefit from smarts that could enable them to do more than just execute one-off commands from users.
With the tech that Semantic Machines is building, Cortana could get better at asking and answering follow-up questions, remembering information you have shared earlier, building context by rifling through your profile, and carry out several functions in sequence after receiving detailed instructions from a human.
Perhaps the best example of what conversational AI could possibly become, in recent times, would be Google Duplex, which lets the company's Assistant make a phone call on your behalf to do things like book a table at your favourite restaurant.
While Google is clearly leading the race in this space, Amazon's Alexa is also building its library of skills to work with a wide range of third-party apps, services, and hardware. Meanwhile, other voice assistants, such as Apple's Siri, Samsung's Bixby, and Microsoft's Cortana are trailing behind, with limited capabilities and compatibility in comparison to the best in the business.
It is, however, interesting to see if Semantic Machines can help Microsoft improve Cortana so it's more widely usable on Windows devices, as well as smart speakers, and phones.