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Steve Guggenheimer
Steve Guggenheimer, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for AI business, talks about the company’s approach at the AI NextCon conference in Bellevue, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Don’t expect Microsoft’s consumer software to hype its artificial-intelligence features. For the most part, the AI smarts are under the hood.

“If you do a good job infusing AI into your products, your customers don’t know you’ve done that. The products just work better,” Steve Guggenheimer, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for AI business, told attendees at the AI NextCon conference here today. “You don’t actually go do a bunch of advertising and say, ‘Office, Now With AI!’ That’s not how it works.”

But rest assured, it’s there.

As an example, Guggenheimer pulled up a PowerPoint slide presentation with quotes from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and computer pioneer Andy Kay.

Click through one menu, and Guggenheimer’s narration pops up as real-time subtitles on the screen. Click another menu, and those subtitles are translated into Japanese text. And with just a few more clicks, Gates’ and Kay’s quotes can be turned into Japanese, or Spanish, or any of 60 other languages.

Those PowerPoint tricks take advantage of the latest in speech recognition and machine learning. “Most people wouldn’t think it’s AI, but it’s pretty cool,” Guggenheimer said.

It’s definitely prime time for artificial intelligence — which takes in skill sets ranging from computer vision and natural language processing to machine learning and neural networks.

“Everybody wants to talk about AI, and it’s not just the tech companies,” said Guggenheimer, who just returned from the CES electronics show in Las Vegas. “There’s consumer companies, sports companies media companies … so it’s the hot topic.”

AI is benefiting from the rapid rise of cloud computing, big-data analysis and sophisticated software tools, with the result that AI programs are starting to outperform the average human in such categories as speech recognition and reading comprehension. Guggenheimer said Microsoft is taking a closer look at AI-generated art and music as well.

But most folks will probably encounter into AI in the workaday world rather than in symphony halls or art galleries. Guggenheimer pointed to a wide range of business-related applications being developed at Microsoft:

  • Microsoft worked with Jabil, a Florida-based chip engineering firm, on a software platform that could review thousands of pass-fail records for circuit boards and develop criteria for automated quality assurance.
  • A variety of chatbots can guide users through the process of repairing a refrigerator’s water dispenser, or checking on their employee benefits, or handling their banking needs. (Guggenheimer also touched on Tay, a millennial chatbot that went famously wrong but ended up serving as a learning experience for Microsoft.)
  • Workplace AI agents can do predictive maintenance, sending alerts about hardware that’s likely to fail and even identifying which workers are best-placed to make repairs. (Just make sure HAL 9000 isn’t in charge.) People-detection software can even alert workers when there’s a forklift coming around the corner.
  • AI assistants can help lawyers by making sure all the clauses are correct in a complicated contract, or review medical records for physicians to ensure that nothing is missed.

All this may make it sound as if AI is merely about cold-eyed competence, but Guggenheimer pointed to some applications that warm the heart — for example, an AI-assisted watch bracelet that compensates for the hand tremors associated with Parkinson’s Disease, or an app that lets blind people know what’s going on around them by whispering in their ears.

Guggenheimer said Microsoft matches its AI applications to a code of ethics that puts humans first.  “The truth is, society will help guide the direction we go in,” he said. “The opportunities are incredible.”

That perspective on AI runs counter to the usual stereotype of a Terminator-style robot uprising — which suggests there might be hope for humanity after all.

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