Microsoft doesn't have a flashy assistant like Alexa, but its A.I. is trying to change how you work

Key Points
  • Microsoft is drawing on artificial intelligence to enhance Outlook, Word, Excel and other products.
  • AI is making its way into services from all the top technology companies.
Microsoft executive vice president Harry Shum at a company event in San Francisco in December 2017.
Jordan Novet | CNBC

Microsoft is in a race with the tech giants to make its software smarter.

At a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, the company showed some of its new intelligent features that are being embedded in its productivity apps, virtual assistant and search engine.

Artificial intelligence is becoming a regular theme for Microsoft when it comes to product enhancements, as it is for Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. AI was clearly on display at Microsoft's Build developer conference in May and has even been added to the company's strategic vision.

Here are some of the new things Microsoft announced on Wednesday:

Outlook: The email app will soon start underlining action items that are mentioned in the body of emails. You can then click on one of those items and respond with a prewritten message. Gmail, Facebook Messenger and LinkedIn are also using smart reply messages.

Word: In Word Online, while you're viewing a document, the app will be able to spell out acronyms that appear.

Excel: Following the launch of a similar feature in Google Sheets, Microsoft will soon allow Excel to automatically generate charts based on data in your spreadsheet.

Bing: Microsoft announced a partnership with Reddit that will add some parts of the social discussion board's content to the Bing search engine. Content from Reddit can provide answers to certain queries at the top of search results, and Bing will also flag upcoming ask-me-anything sessions, when relevant. After you type certain shorter queries into Bing, it will ask a question that you can answer to refine your search.

Cortana: Microsoft will bring the Cortana virtual assistant to its Android launcher app and to Cheetah Mobile's Android launcher. Cortana — which competes with the Google Assistant, Amazon's Alexa, and Apple's Siri — is also integrating with Gmail. Additionally, Microsoft is enhancing Cortana so that it can handle multiple types of tasks in a single interaction.

Accessibility tools: Microsoft is bringing more features to its Seeing AI app for explaining what's in front of a smartphone's camera. The app, a helpful tool for people with impaired vision, can now recognize lights, colors and currencies.

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