Voice apps will change the way we work: How Microsoft could make meetings suck less

Satya Nadella demoing Cortana on stage. Image fromREUTERS/Jim Young via BusinessInsider.com

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Conversational computing is so hot right now. If you don’t know how awesome the Amazon Echo is, or haven’t heard about Google’s competitor, then go read about it in one of the six articles linked to at the end of this post. On the other hand, for all of the hype, there are an equal number of articles saying how pointless bots are going to be, and they have a point: just how useful are bots really? Is it really more convenient to order an Uber via chat?

I’m sure there are a handful of applications where bots would be helpful, but in and of themselves, they don’t represent the computing revolution that Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, hopes they will be. And, it’s this lack of clarity around the ultimate usefulness of bots that makes Apple’s announcements this year look very reasonable. Apple has not created a competitor to the Echo like Google, nor have they created a bot platform like Facebook or Microsoft, instead choosing to just support the handful of applications where Siri is most helpful.

There are plenty of cases where the artificial intelligence powering these bot platforms can drive meaningful value, the kind of value that economists talk about, value that actually shows up in productivity statistics. And Microsoft is perfectly positioned to make us all a lot more productive.

Microsoft needs to build their own version of the Amazon Echo targeted at businesses of all sizes.

Why is the enterprise version of the Echo so compelling?

So much of office work is managerial and not dedicated to actual creativity or producing anything: assigning tasks, writing emails to schedule meetings, taking notes, reading through notes to remember decisions that were made. I’m sure there are statistics that exist highlighting how much of our day is dedicated to this type of work. I bet there is even a fun little phrase that embodies it: “meta-tasks” or “busy work” you know, something that would sell lots of businessy self-help books.

It’s exactly this work that we keep being told is going to be automated away, leaving the people across the country who go to work 8 hours a day to spend 3 hours working and 5 hours on Facebook, gainfully unemployed. But like with electricity before it, the way we work has to change in order to reap the benefits of artificial intelligence. And it’s Microsoft who is in the best position to change the way we work (I think there is an argument to be said for Slack being in this position as well, so Microsoft should buy them this September, the day before Apple’s next Keynote).

What this service would look like

If you’ve been in an conference room in the US in the past decade, chances are you’ve seen a phone like this.

Imagine there is a high quality microphone in every conference room. For example, an iPhone or a Cisco Conference phone. For meetings, this microphone would be recording everything being said in the room, and for conference calls, it would act as another caller on the line, accessible to all of the other callers. This service, let’s call her Cortana (more on that later), would be able to:

  • Create a searchable transcript of every meeting
  • Automatically send a follow up email to meeting participants with action items and key takeaways
  • Schedule follow up meetings
  • Assign tasks to people in attendance or absent from the meeting
  • Make available organizational knowledge to answer questions during a meeting:
“Cortana, Who was responsible for creating that report?”
“Cortana, How much money did widget A make last quarter?”

· Integrate with all of the bots built with the bot builder SDK

Conference calls are such a huge part of global commerce. They are the most ubiquitous voice-based platform, and they can be made intelligent without having to change existing user behaviors. Just call into the same conference number you are used to, and you automatically have access to all of the benefits listed above. No additional hardware required.

Why Microsoft?

Three reasons: brand, customer base, and resources

Microsoft has one of the strongest brands in enterprise: Microsoft Excel, Office, PowerPoint, etc. Google has a similar reputation, where Amazon and Apple do not. Microsoft has the existing customer base who already use their conference calling services Lync, where Google, Apple, and Amazon do not. And most importantly, they already have all of the tools they need to create this service in their Cognitive services API suite (long form speech recognition, Speaker identification, and LUIS) where Google, Apple, and Amazon do not. And with access to LinkedIn’s data, they can create the social context necessary to make Cortana really intelligent — “Schedule a meeting with Sharon from Accounting.”

It’s a reason to buy into the Microsoft Ecosystem

I don’t know if Microsoft is headed in this direction, but given all of the changes they’ve made under Nadella, I’m optimistic they can. If they can pull it off, it gives new customers a reason to buy into Microsoft’s ecosystem. Like other sticky enterprise products, it would be more valuable the more services it is connected to: controlling email and calendars via Outlook, managing customer relationships through Dynamics CRM, etc. etc. And for many customers, it will be a great demonstration of what is possible using Microsoft’s Cognitive services, driving adoption of those tools as well (We use LUIS and it is the best Natural Language Understanding service currently available).

Everything about a Cortana for enterprise plays into the strengths of Microsoft as a company, but it isn’t necessarily going to be Microsoft who creates this product. It will be interesting to see if another company or another startup gets there first, and more interesting to see what AI services they use to build it.

Some Additional reading