We are entering an era – the fourth industrial revolution – in which computers are becoming smarter, more intuitive, and more adept at human-like tasks such as creating and imagining, reasoning and adapting, interpreting, and more; all powered by artificial intelligence (AI). AI, at its core, refers to systems where a machine mimics the cognitive functions of the human mind.
Microsoft is working to be the leaders in this AI-centric revolution. Greater AI capabilities infused on their industry-leading cloud productivity software suite, Office 365, unlocks the power of AI for the platform’s millions of commercial subscribers. The Microsoft Cognitive Services suite (a bundle of AI and machine-learning APIs to build into business applications), and its integrations with SharePoint and Office 365 leveraging Microsoft Flow, means building AI-driven applications and embedding AI capabilities into existing applications is more accessible to everyday business users. In this article, we’ll go over how Microsoft is making your Office 365 environment smarter, and how your business can tap into the potential of AI on SharePoint using Azure Cognitive Services and Microsoft Flow.
Intelligence in Office 365
Microsoft is infusing machine-learning intelligent technologies into their core products, namely Office 365, with the goal of helping people do their best work in order to achieve and accomplish more. Within Office 365, a number of AI capabilities have been introduced to improve productivity on the platform’s core applications.
Personalized search functionalities in Office 365 means employees can discover content and people based on the context of their work (what they’ve been doing lately and who they’ve been working with) across all Office applications. Wherever you are working – from SharePoint, to OneDrive, Exchange and more – searching on any Office 365 application will bring relevant results tailored to your activity, whether it be files, sites, people, news, and more with the help of AI.
AI is also bringing enhanced search rendering capabilities to images in Office 365. Upon uploading an image to Office 365, image-processing algorithms and computer-vision technology automatically detect and extract noticeable words and even landmarks or celebrity faces in the image to make it searchable based on the content of the image. For demos of these features in action, click here, where you can upload your own images and see, first-hand, how computer-vision technology automatically adds an accurate description and relevant tags to your image. The device screenshots below show an example of how when uploading a receipt, the text on the receipt (e.g. “coffee”) is tagged and added to the description, thus making it searchable by its content.
AI advancements in core Office 365 applications
Across core Office 365 applications such as Excel, Outlook, Word, PowerPoint, etc., updates incorporating AI technology and enhancements have been designed to improve the user experience and bring productivity on the platform to new heights. Early examples include, among others, Insights in Excel, Acronyms on Microsoft word, and tools on Outlook to stay more organized and on top of your day.
Insights in Excel
Insights in Excel is a new, AI-infused service that highlights detected patters in order to automatically produce powerful data visualizations and make analyzing and interpreting data faster and easier (video demonstration here).
Acronyms on Microsoft Word
Every workplace has their unique internal acronyms used to make communication more efficient. Leveraging machine-learning and the Microsoft Graph, Acronyms on Word can surface definitions of previously used acronyms by employees across all applications on the Office 365 platform. Using this tool, an employee can quickly find out that, for example, the “AI+R” they see on a document refers to “Artificial Intelligence and Research” if that acronym has been frequently used across the organization on Office 365. This takes no direct programming or manual setting up of the acronyms.
AI and Outlook to help organize your day
Microsoft has brought the intelligent features of Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant, to the Outlook mobile app on iOS and Android in order to help users stay on top of their tasks, events, and more while on the go. For example, Outlook will send you a notification when it is time to leave for your scheduled event, taking into account your current location, event location, and even real-time traffic information. Cortana on the Outlook mobile app can also respond to voice prompts such as, “what are my latest emails?”, or more specifically, “do I have any emails from Tom?” in order to bring voice assisted, intelligent digital assistance with you on the go.
AI in SharePoint with Azure Cognitive Services and Flow
The prior section highlighted some of the many intelligent features embedded into the Office 365 platform to improve the user experience and increase productivity capabilities – mainly intelligent search, image-processing and recognition, and a few other cool features within core Office applications. Now we’re going to talk about how you can leverage Flow (with Microsoft Cognitive Services connectors) in SharePoint to embed AI and machine-learning into workflows and other tasks. Since the Cognitive Services suite is built in and accessible through Azure, let’s first go over the basics of the Azure Active Directory and how it relates to your Office 365 and SharePoint environment.
Azure Active Directory and Microsoft Cognitive Services
Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) is Microsoft’s multi-tenant, cloud-based infrastructure and identity management service that incorporates directory service, application access management, and security into one solution. For Office 365 users, you’re already using Azure AD: it is the backend cloud infrastructure that manages your Office 365 users, applications, and more. Thus any organizations using Office 365 and SharePoint Online are being driven by the Azure cloud platform.
Why does this matter? Available through Azure, Microsoft Cognitive Services are a set of APIs that give developers the ability to make more intelligent applications leveraging machine-learning and other AI technology. That means if your organization is using SharePoint Online, you have access to the AI tools of the Cognitive Services suite. This suite of tools are available as connectors when building workflows and process automation solutions on SharePoint through Flow, bringing even more life to the platform and allowing your applications to more intelligently interact with one another. If you are unaware of Microsoft Flow or unclear as to what is, what it can do, and how you can use it, this video is a great starting point.
Building intelligent SharePoint workflows with Microsoft Cognitive Services
When creating a workflow in SharePoint through Flow, Cognitive Services connectors give you the power to infuse AI into your solutions. Microsoft Cognitive Services APIs include Computer Vision (to recognize scenes, activity, handwriting, etc. in images), Face (to detect faces and identify people), Text Analytics (for sentiment analysis) and many more. Let’s look at an example of what the Text Analytics API in Microsoft Cognitive Services, in connection with SharePoint, can do for your business.
Text Analytics: detecting sentiment of text
The Text Analytics API uses AI to examine and interpret text and compose sentimental analysis, identify the language, key phrases and more. A demo for the API is available here, where you can see how it works by entering a string of a text and viewing what the machine comes up with to analyze it. Of particular interest to many businesses is the sentimental analysis. For example, using the demo, the phrase “I love your product, it is amazing!” renders a 98% score on sentiment. Conversely, the phrase “I hate your product, it is awful!” renders a 3% score on sentiment. The AI capabilities thus automatically detect whether the text is positive or negative.
How could you use this in SharePoint and Flow to automate processes? For example, your marketing and public relations departments likely want to stay on top of customer concerns and address issues as quickly and efficiently as possible. In today’s digital age, many consumers voice their concerns and opinions to social media, so it is imperative that brands monitor what is being said about them on these platforms. To do this, you can set up a custom workflow that automatically notifies the proper employees (e.g. public-relations team) when there has been a negative Twitter post about a certain keyword related to your brand (e.g. your company name, a name of your product, etc.), thus immediately bringing the concern of a customer right to the appropriate employees. This allows for immediate responses and resolutions to customer concerns and issues. Of course, you can also set up a workflow to notify employees on positive Tweets if you want to thank customers for the positive feedback.