Microsoft has revealed a major overhaul of its Bing search engine using AI to try and take on Google.
The firm hopes the new features will make it far more trustworthy than it’s arch rival.
New features include the ability to summarize the two opposing sides of contentious questions, and another that measures how many reputable sources are behind a given answer.
Harry Shum, executive vice president of Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research, speaks at a Microsoft event in San Francisco, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. Microsoft rolled out new features on its Bing search engine powered by artificial intelligence, including one that summarizes the two opposing sides of contentious questions, and another that measures how many reputable sources are behind a given answer. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Tired of delivering misleading information when their algorithms are gamed by trolls and purveyors of fake news, Microsoft and its tech-company rivals have been going out of their way to show they can be purveyors of good information – either by using better algorithms or hiring more human moderators.
Microsoft is also trying to distinguish its 2nd-place search engine from long-dominant Google and position itself as an innovator in finding real-world applications for the latest advances in artificial intelligence.
Bing is now able to give users clear answers to a question rather than simply showing a list of different links. Bing’s new capabilities are designed to give users more confidence that an answer is correct and save them time so they don’t have to click through multiple links to validate it themselves.
‘As a search engine we have a responsibility to provide answers that are comprehensive and objective,’ said Jordi Ribas, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for AI products.
Bing’s new capabilities are designed to give users more confidence that an answer is correct and save them time so they don’t have to click through multiple links to validate it themselves.
‘You could be asking, ‘Is coffee good for you?’ We know that there are no good answers for that,’ Ribas said.
But the new search features side-by-side opposing perspectives.
BING MAKES NUMBERS CLEAR
When people in the United States ask Microsoft’s search engine Bing how big Syria is, they learn the country is 71,498 square miles and about equal to the size of Florida.
When they ask Bing how many calories are in a serving of ice cream, they learn that a scoop contains 137 calories, which is equal to about 11 minutes of running.
Bing results now make numbers easier for understand by offering useful examples
These two-part answers supplied by Bing are early, real-world examples of a technology being developed inside Microsoft’s research labs to help us make sense of the jumble of numbers we increasingly encounter in the digital world, the tech giant said.
‘We want to reduce the number of times that people read a number and can’t make sense of it.
‘And we want to do that by providing some context, or an analogy, or perspective, that puts it in more familiar terms usually related to their everyday experience,’ said Jake Hofman, a senior researcher in Microsoft’s New York research lab.
One source emphasizes coffee’s ability to increase metabolism and another shows it can raise blood pressure.
Similar questions can also be asked on more sensitive topics, such as whether the death penalty is a good idea.
On more complicated questions – is there a god? – Bing doesn’t have enough confidence to provide a pro-con perspective.
But on questions that involve numbers, it boils information down into digestible doses. Iraq, for instance, is described as ‘about equal to the size of California.’
Search engines have evolved since Google took the lead at the turn of the 21st century, when rankings were based on ‘link analysis’ that assigned credibility to sites based on how many other sites linked to them.
BING AND THE TURING TEST
Ultimately, the Microsoft researchers aim to build a service that automatically generates perspectives for any number and communicates them with the ease of a skilled storyteller or teacher.
This service would be able to pass a test for general artificial intelligence posed in 1950 by the British computer theorist Alan Turing.
‘You would be very sure you were talking to a machine if it says 248,572 square miles as opposed to roughly the size of Texas when you asked it how big France was,’ said Dan Goldstein, a principal researcher in Microsoft’s New York research lab.
Harry Shum, executive vice president of Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research, speaks at a Microsoft event in San Francisco
‘To pass the Turing test, you have to talk like a human; someone who can explain something in a way that is personalized to the audience.’
The solution is a relatively low-tech one.
Using perspective sentences is very simple and they help a lot,’ he said.
‘What we’re finding is creating them is a difficult challenge because it requires not only understanding the proper numbers to compare the numbers to, but also understanding what people are familiar with, what kinds of comparisons people like, what kinds of things people can easily imagine.’
Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, revealed the site its teaming up with Bing
As machines get better at reading and summarizing paragraphs, users expect not just a list of links but a quick and authoritative answer, said Harry Shum, who leads Microsoft’s 8,000-person research and AI division.
To test its technology, the company has compared its machine-reading skills to the verbal score on the SAT.
‘We are not at 800 yet, but we bypassed President Bush a long time ago,’ Shum jokes.
The demand for more sophisticated searches has also grown as people have moved from typing questions to voicing them on the road or in their kitchen.
‘If you use Bing or Google nowadays you recognize that more and more often you’ll see direct answers on the top of search result pages,’ Shum said.
‘We’re getting to the point that for probably about 10 percent of those queries we’ll see answers.’
Shum is hesitant to over-promise Bing’s new features as an antidote to the misinformation flooding the internet.
Kristina Behr, partner program manager for AI product design, gives a demonstration of new intelligence search features in Bing at a Microsoft event in San Francisco
‘At the end of the day, people have their own judgments,’ he said.
The search engine features were announced along with updates to Microsoft’s voice assistant Cortana and a new search partnership with the popular online forum Reddit.