A.I. is tech’s next big thing: here’s what companies are doing about it

Google, Facebook, Microsoft and more are seriously getting into A.I.

Artificial intelligence has long fascinated the technology industry and it's easy to see why. Creating a piece of software that can think, and act, like a human mind would be one of the biggest advancements in computer science ever, and that might even be an understatement.

The interest in A.I. has meant that big companies, like Google or Facebook, are hiring teams of engineers and researchers to build the technology into their products. While humans have not created anything close to the human mind, machines and software are becoming much better at predicting what we want based on a much smaller set of information.

Google, for example, spent much of its annual I/O conference talking about advances in A.I. and how the company plans to implement the technology. Google assistant - which has a deliberately lowercase “a” - is one example. The software, which starts from where Google Now left off, can answer queries presented in a conversational form.

If you ask Siri, the virtual assistant embedded into the iPhone, a question that strays into the language you'd use to talk everyday, it would be none the wiser. Google's assistant also goes deeper than that by interpreting the context of each question. For example, you could ask who directed 'Gravity' before following up with “What other films did they direct?” to which you'd get the correct answer without having to explicitly say the name.

Facebook, too, has been focusing on incorporating A.I. into its products. Earlier this month, the company announced DeepText, an A.I.-based search engine that can interpret the meaning of thousands of posts or queries in 20 languages every second.

This will allow Facebook to not only know what post, but to understand what you mean by it, as well. “DeepText has the potential to further improve Facebook experiences by understanding posts better to extract intent, sentiment, and entities,” wrote the team of engineers behind the project.

Microsoft is also making use of A.I., but in a very different way. Its products are largely used by corporations and businesses to get stuff done and so any application of A.I. will need to be useful to them.

To this end, Microsoft has invested heavily in the world of artificial intelligence and has baked the technology into the Office suite, making some tasks easier. Delve, for example, will surface relevant emails, calendar events, and contacts when you need them because it has analysed how you use your inbox, calendar, and contact book.

Elsewhere, Microsoft also has Xiaoice, which is being tested in China. The software works like Siri, but analyses millions of social media conversations to gauge reactions.

“Xiaoice can exchange views on any topic,” wrote one of the lead researchers in a blog post. “If it's something she doesn't know much about, she will try to cover it up. If that doesn't work, she might become embarrassed or even angry, just like a human would.”

This kind of deep A.I. knowledge has seeped into other Microsoft products, including some kooky apps available for the iPhone or Android devices. One, available only on Android, is an alarm clock that requires a smile to turn off, something that may seem trivial but requires a lot of knowledge about human facial expressions.

Apple does not currently have many products that utilise A.I. to any great depth, but the company has been aggressively hiring researchers and has acquired several startups that focus on the technology.

Siri, the virtual assistant, will likely be the first product to benefit from A.I. and Apple may use its WWDC keynote to show off how it works and what it can do. Google, however, has got their first which has worried some Apple fans, but their may still be a trick up its sleeve.

Amazon is also investing in A.I. to help power its search results, product recommendations, and Web Services software. The latter is used by thousands of companies and the further implantation of A.I. technology is likely top of the company's list, especially as Microsoft moves forward.

Unlikely many tech trends, A.I. doesn't seem like it's going to fade away as the current uses only scratch the surface of what it could be used for. Having a computer that can fully under a human would sensational and every major technology company is racing to do it.