Tech’s Biggest Showdown Is Unfolding in Your Living Room

Microsoft is joining Google and Amazon in the race for your home. This week, at an event in China, the venerable tech giant trumpeted the arrival of Project Evo, a sweeping plan to build hardware devices that work a lot like Google Home or the Amazon Echo.

But this race is much bigger than some gadgets that sit on your coffee table. It’s a race not only for the hearts and minds of consumers, but for a world of business customers, too. The prize is more than just the best home digital assistant. The biggest spoils go to the company that rides its assistant to artificial brains that are far smarter—and creates a market for using these brains to do just about anything.

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  • Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are all racing to build systems that recognize and truly understand natural language—how you and I talk. If they can put this technology not only in your living room, but in your pocket and elsewhere, they can become the hub of everything you do online. Google wants to retain its central role in your life. Amazon hopes to move well beyond online shopping. And Microsoft doesn’t want to be left out.

    But as these companies develop services for speech recognition and natural language understanding, they’re also using many of the same underlying technologies—loosely called deep learning—to build all sorts of artificial intelligence. They will slip this AI into their own apps, and offer it to a world of other companies via cloud computing services so that these companies can build AI into their own apps. In the years to come, AI cloud services may wind up as the biggest business for these three tech giants.

    Multiple Futures

    Project Evo is a way of bootstrapping all these opportunities. It’s a way of showcasing Microsoft’s AI talents and pointing coders and companies toward the AI cloud services of Microsoft Azure. More importantly, it’s way of gathering data that can advance the development of future AI technologies. How you talk to Evo will inform how other AI services will operate. Deep neural networks learn by analyzing vast amount of data, and to reach true natural language understanding, they need far more data than a company like Microsoft now has.

    “This is just the beginning,” Chris Stone, the engineering director at Acquia, which helps businesses build online services. “These companies can learn what it takes to build a conversational UI and then implement that across everything else they do. That is what they are doing.”

    This is certanly what Amazon is doing. The Echo’s digital assistant is called Alexa. And last week, Amazon unveiled the cloud computing service Lex, which lets anyone build conversational bots using the technology underpinning Alexa. The more services coders build for Alexa, the more consumers will find devices like the Echo useful. At the same time, Amazon wants to nudge coders and companies toward Amazon Web Services, its sweeping collection of cloud services.