Microsoft buys chatbot company to juice its AI projects

The tech giant wants to help businesses leverage artificial intelligence.

Research company Gartner believes that by 2020, conversational AI -- or chat bots -- will be the predominant go-to for customer support in large organizations. So if you've got a question or a problem, chances are you'll be talking to a computer about it. Tech companies will need to make sure their capabilities are on point, then, which is likely why Microsoft has just acquired software design and development studio XOXCO.

The company is known for its conversational AI and bot development work, and was responsible for the creation of Howdy, the first commercially available bot for Slack that helps schedule meetings, and Botkit, which provides the development tools used by thousands of developers on GitHub. It's the latest in a recent string of AI-focused acquisitions for Microsoft. The company acquired Semantic Machines in May, Bonsai in July, Lobe in September and most recently, GitHub in October.

Microsoft has made no secret of its plans to accelerate the pace of its AI development, and the acquisition of XOXCO coincides with a number of other related announcements. The company has, for example, launched several updates aimed at helping businesses and organizations adopt AI, such as APIs that use optical character recognition to find words in images, can detect language, extract key phrases and analyze sentiment in text, and recognize faces in images -- these services are available in preview, with more to follow.

Microsoft has also announced the introduction of guidelines for developing responsible conversational AI, although as Microsoft AI and Research corporate vice president Lili Cheng notes, "These guidelines are just that – guidelines. They represent the things we've found helpful to think through, especially when designing bots that have the potential to affect people in consequential ways, such as helping them navigate information related to employment, finances, physical health and mental well-being. In these situations, we've learned to pause and ask: Is this a situation in which it's important to make sure there are people involved to provide judgement, expertise and empathy?"

From public transport to humanitarian efforts, Microsoft's AI plans are ambitious, but these latest announcements aim to make the technology accessible to smaller organizations, too. By providing more flexible options for deploying AI tools, its enterprise customers are better able to overcome the challenges involved in leveraging AI, which means we could be talking to computers sooner than we think.