And can tell what their human friends are about to say next, whether at home or in the office, with a development from Microsoft

Ever been in a conversation where you already know what the other person is about to say next? You now share that “feeling” with artificial intelligence. Microsoft has just unveiled this capability on Xiaoice, its Chinese-speaking AI assistant.

The AI bot now processes what the user is saying while forming a response, similar to how human conversations go. In that way, there is little to indiscernible lag between speaking and getting an answer (which becomes important when conducting time-sensitive tasks like baking a cake at home, or scheduling a delivery drop-off in the office). This as-you-speak approach also allows Xiaoice to know exactly when to answer, which creates a more natural conversation, minimizing the need for a cue phrase like “Alexa” and “OK, Google.”

Microsoft calls this ability “duplex voice.” The walkie-talkie experience, or “half duplex voice,” of current voice assistants requires the gaps between responses and commands in order to work.

“This is the art of conversation that people use in their daily life,” said Li Zhou, engineer lead at XiaoIce.

With the update, overlapping is a surmountable challenge for Xiaoice. The update also allows the AI to hold a thought (like when telling a story) to do a task (like turning off a kitchen light or adjusting the air conditioner).

With efforts like this from a major player like Microsoft, is the goal of voice assistants really to mimic human conversation? In its earlier days, the ability to command computers using voice saw the medium as an alternative way to interact with computers. Voice was an ideal alternative to the keyboard and mouse. But with technology such as the one used in Xiaoice, the distinguishing factors between human and computer voices begin to blur—and it doesn't stop there. Di Li, Microsoft's general manager for the project, is also eyeing bots that read human emotions and respond to them accordingly.

The release of this AI assistant update will be limited to China, primarily through Weibo and a device made by Xiaomi that looks a lot like the Amazon Dot. Xiaoice in China has notoriously deep access to the private information of its users. The very human tone, intelligence and character of the AI bot are often attributed to the systemic mining of conversations over Chinese internet.

No word yet on the availability of these updates in English but a Microsoft press release says the technology will be adapted to the US and other territories.

Microsoft

Ever been in a conversation where you already know what the other person is about to say next? You now share that “feeling” with artificial intelligence. Microsoft has just unveiled this capability on Xiaoice, its Chinese-speaking AI assistant.

The AI bot now processes what the user is saying while forming a response, similar to how human conversations go. In that way, there is little to indiscernible lag between speaking and getting an answer (which becomes important when conducting time-sensitive tasks like baking a cake at home, or scheduling a delivery drop-off in the office). This as-you-speak approach also allows Xiaoice to know exactly when to answer, which creates a more natural conversation, minimizing the need for a cue phrase like “Alexa” and “OK, Google.”