This content is part of the Conference Coverage: Microsoft Ignite 2018 conference coverage

Microsoft intros Cortana Skills Kit for app developers

Microsoft has unveiled the Cortana Skills Kit, a platform comprising Azure AI services developers can use to leverage the Cortana voice assistant to improve worker productivity.

Microsoft has introduced a cloud-based platform for companies that want to use the vendor's Cortana AI voice assistant in apps designed to perform mundane tasks that dampen worker productivity.

Microsoft unveiled the Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise this week at the company's Ignite conference in Orlando, Fla. Microsoft is making a test version of the kit available by invitation-only.

Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Apple are ramping up the marketing and technology to entice companies into using their respective AI voice assistants to accomplish specific tasks within an organization. So far, their efforts have failed to convince companies to spend the time and money on building voice-activated apps.

A recent survey of 500 organizations found using voice assistants was the least important of five end-user features covered in the study by Nemertes Research, based in Mokena, Ill. The most important was real-time language translation, followed by mobile app control, facial recognition and the ability to automatically frame video conference participants.

"At this point, I tend to think that voice control is a bit of a novelty," Nemertes analyst Irwin Lazar said. "Participants I talked to like the idea of voice control but aren't willing to pay for it."

What's in the Cortana Skills Kit

Nevertheless, Microsoft believes the latest announcement will expand the use of Cortana within corporations. The company is using its Azure Bot Service -- an AI chatbot offered as a service on Microsoft's Azure cloud -- to power the Skills Kit. The new platform also uses Azure's machine learning service for building natural language understanding into apps.

The Language Understanding service is part of Azure Cognitive Services, which provides AI as a service on Microsoft's cloud. Organizations use the service to access machine and deep learning algorithms without having to build the expensive and specialized infrastructure needed to support them.

Microsoft and its competitors are working quickly to advance their voice assistants, which could eventually make the technology more useful, Lazar said.  An early use case that could prove a favorite one day is initiating phone calls.

However, Microsoft has higher ambitions. In introducing the kit, Javier Soltero, the head of the company's Cortana business, provided in a blog post "imagined scenarios" for the use of Cortana bots ranging from human resources to smart building features, such as scheduling an office cleaning.

Microsoft's proof-of-concept app for Skills Kit was an IT help desk app that lets employees use Cortana to make requests for help with computer problems.

Microsoft has been integrating Cortana into other products to provide customers with the opportunity to use the services. The voice assistant is available in Office 365 and Microsoft's Teams collaboration service.

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