Microsoft launches bot engine and language understanding services out of beta

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Two of Microsoft’s key pre-built AI services for developers were made generally available today, so that it’s easier for businesses to build chatbots and other services that use language understanding.

Azure Bot Service and the Language Understanding Intelligent Service (LUIS) are both generally available through the tech titan’s Azure cloud platform. Bot Engine, as the name implies, provides companies with a managed service that can be used to build intelligent automated conversation partners, while LUIS lets customers create intelligent engines that parse written text into a form that other applications can use.

All of these services are a part of Microsoft’s broader portfolio of cloud services that are supposed to help customers take advantage of AI technology without the use of expensive domain experts. Microsoft isn’t the only cloud provider on the market to offer similar services, and continuing its development of Bot Service and LUIS (which customers already began using during their preview periods) will help the tech titan compete.

Harry Shum, the head of Microsoft’s AI and Research Group, told an audience at the company’s offices today that there are currently 760,000 developers using the company’s Cognitive Services — prebuilt APIs that offer intelligent features.

That traction is good news for Azure overall as it looks to compete with Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and other providers. Developers tapping Microsoft for its intelligent APIs will likely use other features from Azure.

The news is also a sign of Microsoft’s ongoing commitment to the bot ecosystem. Shum said that developing AI language interfaces is critical for the field’s future. In his view, having computers that can engage in chit-chat is important, which is why the company continues to build chatbots like Xiaoice in china and Zo in the U.S.

In addition, Microsoft Research also launched a new project that’s aimed at creating bots to work in healthcare environments. The Health Bot Project offers a HIPAA compliant environment for creating intelligent assistants that can help answer questions about health insurance, symptoms, and the location of nearby doctors.

Microsoft is working with partners like Premera Blue Cross and Aurora Healthcare to create bots using the system, and has opened applications for other medical providers to try it out.

It comes as part of a broader set of AI announcements that Microsoft unveiled today, including new features for its Bing search engine, Cortana virtual assistant and Office 365 productivity suite.

Update 15:10 Pacific: This story has been updated with information about the Microsoft Health Bot Project. 

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