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Hi, My Name Is Clippy—You Look Like You Want to Buy Something

Microsoft Holds Annual Shareholder MeetingMicrosoft Holds Annual Shareholder Meeting
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.Photograph by Stephen Brashear—Getty Images

We don’t always get to choose what people remember us for, and Microsoft is no exception. While the software giant was talking Wednesday at its Build 2016 conference about the brave new world of “artificially intelligent” software agents—otherwise known as bots—all anyone of a certain age could think of was a souped-up version of Clippy.

Clippy was the annoying animated paper clip that used to pop up in Microsoft Office to help with routine tasks like creating a document or a spreadsheet. His real name was Clippit, the Office Assistant, but he was almost universally reviled and Microsoft disabled him by default in 2001.

But that was then, and this is now! And Microsoft wants everyone to know that it is really excited about the future of bots. “Conversations as a platform,” the company calls it. Microsoft is releasing a host of bots for apps like Skype (although it used the word “army,” which probably isn’t a great strategy, since it calls to mind a Terminator-style future).

If we needed further evidence of the downside of a poorly educated bot, Microsoft gave us a fantastic example last week: The company’s Tay bot, designed to communicate like a teenage girl, turned into a foul-mouthed racist less than 24 hours after being released into the wild, and had to be returned to the shop for repairs.

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Needless to say, Microsoft is hoping for better things from its current crop of bots, which are designed to interface with different pieces of software and make it easier for users to do a variety of things, from booking hotel rooms to buying a new shirt.

The software company isn’t the only one betting on a bot-enabled future: Facebook has its M virtual assistant and is going to allow developers to build bots that will live inside Facebook Messenger. The corporate messaging app Slack has also moved down this road with an open API that lets almost anyone build a bot.

Everyone has their eye on the success of messaging-based commerce in China, where Tencent’s WeChat app is used by over half a billion people to do everything from finding a date to updating their bank accounts. Will Microsoft be a leader of this revolution or an also-ran? I would ask the Tay bot, but she’s still in the shop.