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Microsoft’s plan to create a bot search engine

FUSE Labs of Microsoft Research general manager Lili Cheng on stage at O'Reilly Bot Day, a gathering of bot enthusiasts held Oct. 19 at the Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco, Calif.

This year, we’ve watched Apple, Google, Facebook, Samsung, Microsoft, and so many other tech giants make acquisitions or launch products to get into the bot business.

They’re building bot ecosystems around their chat app platforms, in SMS, web pages, and elsewhere, but one of the biggest problems in this age of artificial intelligence is discovery: How do you find the very best bots?

Microsoft wants to expand its bot directory, general manager of FUSE Labs at Microsoft Research Lili Cheng told VentureBeat in an interview Wednesday, and it wants to do it with the help of developers and other chat app platforms.

“My hope is that we can do something more like search does with web pages, rather than a very closed directory that just Microsoft owns, and we kind of lean that way anyway because we support all these channels,” Cheng said.

No prospective launch date has been set for an expanded Microsoft bot directory, but Cheng said Microsoft wants to work with the bot developer community and other platforms to create a directory that includes names like Skype, Facebook Messenger, Kik, Slack — some of the biggest chat app platforms in the world.

Taken to its logical conclusion, if Microsoft and other chat platforms work together to create a common search engine to help people find bots, it could mean that someday we see the emergence of something like a Bing for bots.

Cheng and her team are one of the most influential groups in the short history of bots on chat platforms. Her team at Microsoft Research led efforts to create Xiaoice, a bot with 40 million users in China, and Tay, the famous Twitter bot that turned into a racist, anti-Semitic less than 24 hours after launch.

Microsoft Research also created the Microsoft Bot Framework, a tool kit for making bots that connects with half a dozen other platforms currently being used by more than 45,000 developers.

Cheng said she doesn’t want a bot directory for Microsoft bots alone, and that she doesn’t even want to create a directory of bots made with the bot framework alone.

A lack of discovery can create a problem for developers and businesses who want their work seen and adopted. It’s too early for the walled gardens of chat app platforms to become silos, Cheng said.

“We have this vision that bots and conversational experiences work across platforms better,” Cheng said. “We are very much in the camp of let’s share learnings and technologies, and try to make these things interoperate.”

Microsoft has thus far proven to be pretty agnostic about platforms you can create bots for using its framework. Since its launch in April, the Microsoft Bot Framework has grown to include integrations with Facebook Messenger, Kik, and as of two weeks ago Slack.

Microsoft has embraced a cross platform strategy, Cheng said, because the need to have people building for multiple platforms reduces the willingness of developers and businesses to experiment and can stifle innovation, Cheng said.

“Should you be writing a bot for Kik or Telegram or Slack or Facebook or Skype or Skype for Business or web chat or your mobile app, like there’s so many channels?” Cheng asked.

“You want the innovation to be in the bot you’re creating, not in figuring out how to make it work across all these different systems, so my dream would be that we could work with a lot of the other people and say let’s standardize the way we do cards, or the way we’re understanding buttons, or the way we’re thinking about authentication mechanisms or identification, just so people don’t have to worry so much about that.”

Sites like Product Hunt and startups like Botlist have made their own forms of bot discovery today, but look to the owners of the platforms, companies like Kik, Microsoft, or Facebook, and each features a few dozen bots — most often in partnership with consumer-facing corporations. Tens of thousands of bots have already been made for each of the platforms.

Today in the Microsoft Bot Directory you can find roughly 50 bots of varying skills, mostly a mashup of artificial intelligence available through Microsoft Cognitive Services, but the company wants it to grow and be inclusive of platforms in the world, not just Skype.

In informal surveys of bot developers, Microsoft has found that discovery is a big problem.

“One of the top issues people have is like ‘Hey I made this bot. How am I going to get it promoted? How are people going to know? Is there some directory or categorization?’ So keep pushing us, because we should really, I think that’s an opportunity for us, and it might even be better as sort of a neutral thing.”

Among competition, before being acquired by Google, API.ai had easy integration into more than a dozen chat platforms. Google has not elaborated on how it wants to grow its Actions on Google platform scheduled to debut in December.

It’s been argued and it’s true that new mediums can find new forms of discovery. Not many of us use phone books anymore, you probably use an app on a mobile device or search engine on the web, but it’s tough to expect mass adoption of bots if they can’t find them.

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What we’re watching: ‘Raw’ and ‘Feast of Fiction’

Welcome back to Video IRL, where several of our editors talk about what they've been watching in their spare time. This month we're kicking things off with some seasonally-appropriate horror fare, that you can catch right away on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Then it's time for a Gundam throwback before Kris Naudus points out a couple of YouTube food channels perfect for binge eating or binge watching.

Them / Raw

Timothy J. Seppala

Timothy J. Seppala
Associate Editor

To get into the Halloween spirit, I've been watching at least one horror movie a day since the end of September -- the lower the budget, the better. Problem is, so many of the American low-budget or indie horror offerings on Amazon and Netflix are crappy Paranormal Activity clones, cheap-thrill gore-fests or uninspired found-footage "documentaries." Whether it's by design or coincidence, I've found that French horror movies have held my attention the most lately. Specifically, 2016's Raw, as well as Them, from ten years prior. They're more psychological thrillers than straight-up horror, but that didn't stop me from being more on edge while watching them one afternoon than I was during A Haunting in Saginaw, Michigan, late at night. Both start with a car crash, but they couldn't finish any more differently.

Raw, recently added to Netflix, tells the tale of a vegetarian girl in her first week at a prestigious veterinary school. During a hazing ritual, she's forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. She immediately gets sick, throws up and wakes herself up that night scratching a full-body rash to near bleeding. This bout with food poisoning is just the beginning, though, and soon protagonist Justine finds out she has a taste for forbidden fruit. As the remaining 70-ish minutes unfolded, I lost track of how many times I clasped my hands over my mouth, agape in shock, to stifle my shouts of "OHMYGODWHATTHEFUCKISEVENHAPPENING?!"

But French director Julia Ducournau balances every body-horror scene either with something pedestrian twisted into being unsettling (like a horse on a treadmill) or with something that makes you ask how far Justine can go before someone confronts her about her new diet. And those questions keep coming right until the credits roll. I can't say I enjoyed watching Raw, but it was a hell of a ride.

The same goes for Them, currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Its focus is narrow, centering on a young couple living in a cavernous farmhouse, terrorized over the course of a night by unseen horrors. The camera never quite gives away who (or what) the perpetrators are, and revealing the twist would be a sin. As with Raw, its atmosphere and overall creepiness won me over straightaway. The scariest part? Realizing that I've probably driven past a shot like the final scene countless times and not thought twice about it. If you're willing to read subtitles, both of these should make you shiver and scream more than The Conjuring 2 on HBO Go could ever hope to.

Mobile Suit Gundam The 08th MS Team

David Lumb

David Lumb
Contributing Editor

I'd heard that a lot of anime had left Hulu, but I scanned their selection anyway looking for classic shows I'd missed, like the original Mobile Suit Gundam. They don't have that -- but they did have a series I didn't finish the first time it aired on Toonami, the 1996 classic Gundam side story The 08th MS Team. Unlike the franchise's other show released the year before, the massively successful Gundam Wing, 08th ditches the brand's typical pretty-boys-in-unbeatable-robots for a grounded and sobering story about the people who get caught up in wars -- desperate soldiers, civilians and guerrillas alike. It's dirty, honest, utterly humane and gorgeously animated.

It's also a little preachy and melodramatic, and it shows its age with odd sexist moments. While it's still the Thin Red Line of the Gundam universe, I remember it far more fondly from when my 14-year-old self grazed the series on its first American airing. There's something sad in seeing an old favorite for the flawed media it always was. Much like Waypoint's Rob Zacny, I've grown up and seen a lot since I first caught the show as a starry-eyed teen. I still think The 08th MS Team is a wonderful little 12-episode miniseries with a big heart, but I won't revere it so highly -- and will think a little harder about who I recommend it to.

Feast of Fiction / Binging with Babish

Kris Naudus

Kris Naudus
Senior Editor, Database

Back in March, I came home from a trip only to discover that my oven didn't work. The cooking gas in my building had been shut off due to a leak. My building management seemed to be on it, so I made do with a combination of microwavables, toaster oven and Seamless. Unfortunately, weeks and months went by, calls to the city were made and permits were issued, but, even as I write this in October, gas still has not been restored to my building. My landlords eventually threw their collective hands in the air and began installing electric ranges in every apartment, so a few weeks ago I was finally able to cook for myself again.

I am so jazzed to be able to make food. Hot food! Scrambled eggs! Steak! Cookies! I started reading food blogs and cookbooks, and shopping to refill my pantry. I'm halfway through Kenji Alt-Lopez's The Food Lab, a huge 900-page hardcover that talks about the science of how food cooks. On the lighter side, I've also been reading food-themed comics like Delicious in Dungeon and Food Wars. And the latter title (which is also an anime) ended up sucking me into a YouTube hole of food videos that I've been obsessed with ever since.

You see, the very first chapter of Food Wars features the "Gotcha" Pork Roast, a bacon-wrapped potato loaf that hero Soma Yukihira makes to save his family restaurant. It looks pretty tasty, so I searched for recipes and pics online and stumbled onto Jimmy Wong and Ashley Adams' Feast of Fiction, a series that demonstrates how to make various foods seen in cartoons, video games and comics. If you ever wanted to taste Steven Universe's beloved Cookie Cat ice cream sandwiches or Kirby's super-spicy curry, there's an episode for you. One thing I really enjoy is how they also incorporate crafts into it, showing how to make paper wrappers for your Reptar chocolate bars or genuine-looking Ecto Cooler Hi-C boxes.

I've been marathoning through the episodes, which the YouTube algorithms have definitely picked up on at this point, throwing food show after food show into my suggestions. One that caught my eye was Binging with Babish. Where Feast of Fiction mostly sticks to the realm of kids' cartoons, anime and video games, Binging with Babish is a little more mainstream, covering foods from popular media like Mad Men, Seinfeld and House of Cards. Still, there's a bit of overlap -- both Babish and Feast have done their own takes on the Ultimeatum from Regular Show and Krabby Patties from SpongeBob SquarePants. But the recipes are different, and I watch the shows for the personalities. Feast of Fiction is pretty silly (and there's a cute dog), while Binging with Babish is a little more subdued. Not that Babish can't be ridiculous as well -- the Moist Maker is one of the most ridiculously complicated sandwiches I have ever seen, basically asking you to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner.

Sadly, I still haven't done a lot of actual cooking since getting my stove back. I'm having too much fun watching other people do it instead, with the added bonus that I don't have to clean up the mess.

"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.