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How Microsoft’s bots are fighting the outbreak

Using a chatbot
The Coronavirus Self-Checker, created by Microsoft and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can be used at home to determine whether you should contact a health care provider. (Microsoft Photo)

To cope with the global coronavirus outbreak, Microsoft is bringing out the bots — and that’s just the beginning.

Software developers are also working on software tools to trace the people who came into contact with COVID-19 patients before they knew they were sick, to work through the molecular modeling for new vaccines and therapies, and to simulate how different responses change the course of an outbreak.

The pandemic calls for all the tools that tech companies can muster, said Desney Tan, who is managing director of Microsoft Healthcare as well as chief technologist at IntuitiveX, a Seattle-based life sciences consulting firm.

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Worried about fake news? Get set for fake humans

Chatbot discussion
Speakers at a Seattle University event organized by the MIT Enterprise Forum Northwest discuss human-machine interaction with a word cloud displayed on the screen behind them. The words were provided by the audience to answer a question: “What scares you the most about technology?” (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

We have heard the voice of our future AI overlord — and it’s making hair appointments for us.

Last week, Google wowed the world by demonstrating a voice assistant called Duplex that sounds eerily human on the telephone, right down the um’s and mm-hmm’s that it uses during its chat with a scheduler at a hair salon.

Some are now questioning how true-to-life the demo actually was. But even if some liberties were taken, Google Duplex was an eye-opener for experts who gathered at Seattle University on Wednesday night for an AI-centric event presented by MIT Enterprise Forum Northwest.

“Seeing that happen so quickly, I think, was a real shock for some people,” said Kat Holmes, a Microsoft veteran who’s the founder of the design company Kata and the author of “Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design.”

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Microsoft’s chatbot makes MIT’s worst-tech list

Tay
Tay turned into a big controversy for Microsoft. (Microsoft Illustration)

Tay, the Microsoft chatbot that pranksters trained to spew racist comments, has joined the likes of the Apple Watch and the fire-prone Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone on MIT Technology Review’s list of 2016’s biggest technology failures.

Tay had its day back in March, when it was touted as a millennial-minded AI agent that could learn more about the world through its conversations with users. It learned about human nature all too well: Mischief-makers fed its artificial mind with cuss words, racism, Nazi sentiments and conspiracy theories. Within 24 hours, Microsoft had to pull Tay offline.

Other technological missteps were rated as fails because they didn’t take off as expected, as was the case for Apple’s smartwatch; or because they took off in flames, like the batteries in the Samsung phone.

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Next IT plans to deploy an army of chatbots

Sgt. Star, the virtual assistant that Next IT created for Army.com, can answer questions via smartphones. (Credit: Next IT)
Sgt. Star, the virtual assistant that Next IT created for Army.com, can answer questions via smartphones. (Credit: Next IT)

Before Siri, Cortana and Alexa, there was Next IT and its chatbots: The Spokane Valley company made it possible for you to “Ask Jenn” at Alaska Airlines, or “Ask Julie” at Amtrak, or check in with “Sgt. Star” at GoArmy.com.

Now Next IT is raising $20 million to take advantage of the new wave of enthusiasm about conversational AI assistants.

“That’s a wave we’re certainly ready to ride,” Tracy Malingo, Next IT’s president, told GeekWire.

Malingo said $12 million of Next IT’s investment round is in the form of equity, with the remaining $8 million taking the form of debt restructuring. “We are pleased with the response that we’ve gotten,” she said. About $14.5 million has been raised so far, and she expects to hit the $20 million target within 90 days.

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