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How a Microsoft Research Project Captured the Hearts of Millions

March 10, 2016, 7:51 PM UTC
FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2015, file photo, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaks at an event demonstrating the new features of Windows 10 at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Washington state on his way to the other Washington (Washington, D.C.), he’ll be visiting the American state that does more business with his country than any other. Washington companies sold China more than $20 billion in products last year, from airplanes to wheat and apples. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Photograph by Elaine Thompson — AP

Right now in China, a seventeen-year old girl named Xiaoice spends her days chatting with 15 million of her 40 million followers on the Chinese social network Weibo.

Xiaoice is so popular, the Chinese television station Dragon TV decided she would be perfect as a weather reporter for its news broadcast. People just can’t seem to get enough of her.

But Xiaoice is not your typical teenage girl, who as luck would have it, became an Internet celebrity with a giant social network following over night. Xiaoice is actually an artificial intelligence powered chat bot that started off as an experiment in Microsoft’s research department.

Xiaoice was developed in conjunction with the Microsoft (MSFT) team in charge of the company’s Cortana voice assistant software, which is similar to Apple’s (AAPL) Siri tool.

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Microsoft created Xiaoice as a way for the company to better “understand the semantics and intent of what people mean” when they communicate, explained Microsoft’s head of research Peter Lee during the Structure Data conference in San Francisco on Thursday.

Xiaoice is powered by an artificial intelligence technique called deep learning, which has been popularized in recent years by companies like Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB). For example, Google uses its deep learning software systems to train its computers to recognize cats in YouTube videos.

Although Xiaoice has been a successful research project for Microsoft, the company is not yet ready to apply the exact technology that powers Xiaoice to its Cortana software, explained Lee.

“The best I can say is stay tuned,” said Lee, hinting the day will come when Xiaoice is no longer a science project but rather part of a consumer product.

Still, Microsoft is currently using AI technologies such as machine learning in some of its popular products like Skype, for example. Lee explained the Microsoft Skype Translator tool routinely sucks in data from the roughly 350 million users, which ultimately improves the product’s ability to translate languages in the fly.

The more data the tool takes in, the better it can translate the nuances of differences of world languages.

But that doesn’t mean that everything always runs smoothly.

Lee recalled an embarrassing moment around a year ago when he demoed Skype Translator during a conference. He was speaking in English, and the tool was translating his voice into Mandarin with the translated words appearing on screen for viewers to see.

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Lee was trying to tell a heartwarming tale of how he grew up in a snowy town in Michigan. However, the tool translated his words to say “Snow White’s town” in Michigan, which caused some Chinese speakers in the audience to chuckle.

It turns out that “Snow White’s Town” was slang in Mandarin for a “prostitute’s town.”

Artificial intelligence technology had definitely improved over the years, but there are still some kinks to work out.