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Harry Shum, the executive vice president of Microsoft’s AI and Research Group, speaking in Bellevue, Wash., this afternoon. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Microsoft has launched conversational chatbots in several countries so far, starting three years ago with Xiaoice in China, which quickly became a cultural phenomenon in the country. Since then the Redmond-based company has launched chatbots in countries including Japan, the United States and India.

But that’s just the start, says Harry Shum, the executive vice president of Microsoft’s AI and Research Group.

“My ask to the team is that, for any country with more than 100 million people, we should launch our own chatbot,” said Shum during a presentation today at an event marking the launch of the GIX joint U.S./China tech institute. Shum didn’t give a number, but that translates into more than a dozen countries around the world.

The comment reflects Microsoft’s big ambitions in artificial intelligence in areas including computer vision, speech recognition, and general artificial intelligence. Shum’s division was formed a year ago, with more than 5,000 people at the outset, to help the company realize CEO Satya Nadella’s vision for “democratizing” AI, making the underlying technology available to many companies beyond the leading tech giants.

Microsoft’s efforts in chatbots have had some false starts, most notably its ill-fated “Tay” chatbot in the United States, which was pulled offline after the internet taught it to make racist and other offensive comments. But the company has rebounded with “Zo” in the United States, which now has more than 500,000 users, Shum said.

Shum told the crowd that chatbots demonstrate the importance of pursuing not just IQ but also EQ in artificial intelligence, creating machines that aren’t just smart but are also able to connect emotionally with users.

“It’s really about understanding the user — why he or she said something like that,” he said. He explained, “The key idea here is that computers have to speak human because only then can every human speak to AI, speak to computers and collaborate with AI.”

Even with the progress in chatbots, Shum noted that Microsoft and the rest of the tech industry still have a long way to go before achieving general artificial intelligence. “I want to caution everybody, we’re still very early in this AI thing,” he said. “Computers today can perform specific tasks very well. But when it comes to general tasks, AI cannot yet compete with a human child.”

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