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Microsoft's Satya Nadella: 'We're not pursuing AI to beat humans at games'

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Microsoft is gunning for the AI market with gusto. During the company’s Ignite conference in Atlanta on Monday, CEO Satya Nadella took the stage to describe how Microsoft is pushing artificial intelligence to improve users’ lives.

As Nadella explained, Microsoft isn’t “pursuing AI to beat humans at games,” a clear dig at Google’s AlphaGo computer which beat Korean grandmaster Lee Sedol.

Instead, he said, the company is trying to democratize information and access to intelligence to “empower every person and every institution that people build with the tools of AI, so that they can go on to solve the most pressing problems of our society and economy.”

That’s a lofty statement, and probably a bit of an over-promise, but suffice to say that the company is certainly working on interesting AI features. According to Nadella, the way in which we’ll interact with Microsoft’s AI is through its own Cortana personal digital assistant.

As Microsoft puts it, Cortana is the third kind of interface besides our basic desktop and mobile operating systems. With Cortana, which comes preinstalled with Windows 10 — it’s also available for download on Android and iOS — you can do basic things like check sports scores and look up upcoming appointments.

But what’s more impressive is how the software can also pull information out of programs like your email and Office 365 and social networks like LinkedIn, which Microsoft recently purchased.

Say, for example, that you sent an email to someone and promised to do something like have a report done by a specific date. Cortana will be able to see that in your email and provide you with a reminder for that commitment to ensure you don’t forget it. I’m pretty adept at doing just that, so I’m already looking forward to this feature alone. Then again, it also completely eliminates any plausible deniability you could have had when it comes to missing a work deadline. Basically, Cortana is a helpful narc.

One particularly interesting example showed off during Ignite was Cortana’s Health Insights feature. The app, according to Microsoft, is able to track your active minutes, how well you sleep and what you eat and combine that with your schedule to tell you things like if you’re going to miss a workout because you’re traveling and suggest that you reschedule.

That’s a pretty narrow example, but if Microsoft can expand on those kinds of capabilities, Cortana’s Health Insights could be incredibly helpful.

Outside of Cortana, Microsoft provided a look at how the company is using AI to help create a bot for fantasy football fanatics, a system that allows Volvo to measure driver fatigue and attentiveness and Uber’s new driver recognition feature.

Microsoft’s emphasis on AI and machine learning are certainly good signs, but it’s not the only tech giant working on such services. Google’s own assistant, Google Now, is already able to pull in information from Gmail and spit out helpful insights. I can’t tell you how many times the app has helped ensure I didn’t miss my plane by grabbing my flight information from Gmail and providing it to me in an easy to read card.

The search giant’s new Google Assistant, available via the company’s new Allo chat app, will push that kind of capability even further by using data your data stored in all of Google’s disparate services to better help you manage your daily life.

What’s more, in order for people to get the most out of Microsoft’s services, they need to actually use Cortana on more than just their PCs. That means getting the average consumer to download the Cortana app onto their iPhone or Android device. Naturally, that could be a hard sell when both Apple and Google’s ecosystems already offer their own Cortana competitors: Siri and the aforementioned Google Now.

Microsoft is certainly on the right track when it comes to AI, but if it’s going to win over the average consumer it has to do more than match or slightly outpace what the competition is going. It has to completely outstrip them.

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.