Microsoft Acquires AI startup
General view of Microsoft Corporation headquarters at Issy-les-Moulineaux, near Paris, April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Microsoft announced Friday that it has acquired the Canadian artificial intelligence (AI) startup Maluuba. The acquisition will help Microsoft develop artificial intelligence with improved language understanding and communication skills.

Although it is yet to release an artificially intelligent voice assistant such as the Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, the company has, in recent years, been strengthening its AI capabilities.

In September 2016, the company joined hands with Facebook, Google, Amazon and IBM to launch a nonprofit called the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society, or the Partnership on AI for short, aimed at advancing understanding of AI for the general public.

With the acquisition of Maluuba, Microsoft will have an edge in terms of natural language processing. The startup has developed a deep learning research lab for natural language understanding. It also works on improving communication capabilities between humans and machines.

Harry Shum, executive vice president of Microsoft's artificial intelligence and research group, dropped hints in his Jan. 13 blog post on the subject that the acquisition might help improve Microsoft’s own voice assistant, Cortana.

“Maluuba’s vision is to advance toward a more general artificial intelligence by creating literate machines that can think, reason and communicate like humans — a vision exactly in line with ours. … I’m incredibly excited about the scenarios that this acquisition could make possible in conversational AI,” he said.

"Conversational AI" in this context could refer only to Cortana, since it is currently Microsoft's leading voice-based application. But compared to other voice assistants, Microsoft’s offering is pretty basic since it mostly combines search algorithm and voice commands.

With the acquisition, Microsoft’s AI capabilities may get a major boost, leading to the creation of a smarter Cortana sometime in the near future.

"Imagine a future where, instead of frantically searching through your organization’s directory, documents or emails to find the top tax-law experts in your company, for example, you could communicate with an AI agent that would leverage Maluuba’s machine comprehension capabilities to immediately respond to your request," Shum said. "This is just one of hundreds of scenarios we could imagine as Maluuba pushes the state-of-the-art technology of machine literacy."