Microsoft Introduces Zo, Its New And Improved AI-Powered Chatbot To The World

Microsoft has been investing in artificial intelligence for over two decades now. Those investments have led to technologies such as Cortana, the digital assistant that helps navigate Windows, and Microsoft Translator, which uses the company's new intelligent language and speech recognition capability to translate between groups speaking in multiple languages in-person and in real-time. It's also led to Zo, Microsoft's new social chatbot.

Zo uses conversational AI, which Microsoft says is comprised of two distinct sides—the task-completion side or productivity side and the emotional side. From Microsoft's vantage point, both are needed to truly tap into the full potential of AI. The latter is something that Cortana lacks, but by developing and advancing sophisticated chatbots, Microsoft is moving towards its long-term strategy of injecting an emotional side into Cortana.

AI Heads

Part of Zo's development and growth entails interacting with real humans on social channels. That hasn't always worked out so well for Microsoft. When Microsoft released its Tay chatbot to the world through Twitter, Internet trolls quickly pounced and turned the impressionable AI personality into a hate spewing, racist jerk. That's actually putting it mildly. Microsoft yanked Tay offline and apologized for not anticipating the "wildly inappropriate and reprehensible words and images" the chatbot posted.

"Looking ahead, we face some difficult – and yet exciting – research challenges in AI design. AI systems feed off of both positive and negative interactions with people. In that sense, the challenges are just as much social as they are technical," Microsoft said at the time.

Zo, like Tay, learns from human interactions and is able to respond emotionally and intelligently. However, Microsoft notes there are "strong checks and balances in place to protect [Zo] from exploitation."

Microsoft is also being smarter about how it introduces Zo to the world. Rather than send Zo into the lion cage known as Twitter, the chatbot is on Kik, a mobile messaging app for Android and iOS with over 300 million users. Zo has already had conversations with over 100,000 people in the U.S. to date, including 5,000 conversations that have lasted more than an hour long. She currently holds Microsoft's longest continual chatbot conversation at 1,229 turns, lasting 9 hours and 53 minutes.

Microsoft Research

"It’s a very personal experience. We’re really moving from a world where we have to understand computers to a world where they will understand us and our intent, from machine-centric to human-centric, from perceptive to cognitive and from rational to emotional," said harry Shum, executive vice president of Microsoft's AI and Research group.

More than just fun and games, chatbots like Zo provide the groundwork for increasingly complex and capable AI personalities that can be used in customer service and other areas.

"We will push the boundaries and we will learn," Shum said. "We’ll share our learnings with the industry, with you — so we can democratize AI and hopefully accelerate its benefits for our society."