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Maluuba co-founder and CTO Kaheer Suleman (left) and co-founder and CEO Sam Pasupalak. (Maluuba image)

Microsoft has agreed to acquire Maluuba, a Montreal-based company that uses deep learning to develop natural-language understanding, especially question-answering and decision-making. The move could help Microsoft compete to develop new voice-based interfaces or enhance its existing Cortana voice assistant. Voice is widely heralded as the computing interface of the future and currently dominated by Amazon’s Alexa.

The acquisition, terms of which weren’t disclosed, “will help Microsoft advance its strategy to make artificial intelligence accessible and valuable to everyone — consumers, businesses and developers,” Microsoft said in a blog post today. “We believe that together, we can achieve greater scale for Maluuba’s groundbreaking work and accelerate our ability to develop software so computers can read, write and converse naturally.”

Yoshua Bengio. (Via Microsoft)

Maluuba was co-founded in 2011 by CEO Sam Pasupalak and CTO Kaheer Suleman, who were classmates at the University of Waterloo in Canada, according to the company’s website. It has raised $11 million in equity funding, according to Crunchbase.

“Understanding human language is extremely complex and is ultimately the holy grail in the field of Artificial Intelligence,” the co-founders say on the company’s site. “Our research lab . . .  is focused on advancing the state-of-the-art in deep learning for human language understanding.”

Yoshua Bengio, an advisor to Maluuba and head of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, will be advising Microsoft and interacting directly with Harry Shum, executive VP of Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research Group.

Microsoft last fall said its researchers had tested software that recognizes human speech as well as humans do, with a record low error rate of 6.3 percent. Twenty years ago, the best rate achieved was greater than 43 percent. The company is also working hard on image recognition.

“We’ll have more to share about our plans for Maluuba in the coming months,” Shum wrote in a separate blog post today.

Alexa now has more than 7,000 skills, third-party capabilities, that it can perform, though it has not been incorporated into any smartphone. Microsoft’s Cortana hasn’t made as many inroads in home automation, though it has a presence on Microsoft’s Windows 10, Windows 10 Mobile and Xbox One. For both Microsoft and Amazon, though, a more important use for voice may be as part of their respective cloud offerings, allowing end-users to build voice-responsive applications.

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