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Semantic Machines’ team. (Semantic Machines Photo)

Microsoft has acquired Semantic Machines, a “conversational AI” startup in Berkeley, Calif., to further its work in building machines that can converse naturally with humans.

Semantic aims to advance the state of voice-based AI, like virtual assistants Alexa, Siri, Cortana and others, from understanding and responding to commands to being able to have compete conversations. The company is led by accomplished startup entrepreneurs, a former chief speech scientist for Apple’s Siri and leading AI researchers and professors from Stanford and University of California at Berkeley.

With the acquisition, Microsoft will set up a “center of excellence” focused on pushing “forward the boundaries of what is possible in language interfaces,” David Ku, corporate vice president and chief technology officer of Microsoft AI & Research, wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition.

“Combining Semantic Machines’ technology with Microsoft’s own AI advances, we aim to deliver powerful, natural and more productive user experiences that will take conversational computing to a new level,” Ku wrote.

Speech is a major part of Microsoft’s broader AI push. Microsoft doubled down on AI as part of its most recent reorganization, and it is embedding the technology into everything it does.

Last month, Microsoft said its chatbots and digital assistants can now conduct “session-oriented” back and forth conversations with humans, instead of the single question, single answer format seen in most digital assistants today. Last year, the company hit a major milestone in speech recognition, matching the accuracy of top human transcribers.

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