Being Bing: Microsoft’s Overlooked AI Tool

Microsoft's Bing search engine has long been a punch line in the tech industry, an also-ran that never came close to challenging Google's dominant position.

But Microsoft could still have the last laugh, since its service has helped lay the groundwork for its burgeoning artificial intelligence effort, which is helping keep the company competitive as it builds out its post-PC future.

Bing probably never stood a chance at surpassing Google, but its 2nd-place spot is worth far more than the advertising dollars it pulls in with every click. Billions of searches over time have given Microsoft a massive repository of everyday questions people ask about their health, the weather, store hours or directions.

"The way machines learn is by looking for patterns in data," said former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, when asked earlier this year about the relationship between Microsoft's AI efforts and Bing, which he helped launch nearly a decade ago. "It takes large data sets to make that happen."

Hidden Foundation

Microsoft has spent decades investing in various forms of artificial intelligence research, the fruits of which range from its voice assistant Cortana to email-sorting features and the machine-learning algorithms used by businesses that pay for its cloud platform Azure. It's been stepping up its overt efforts recently, such as with this year's acquisition of Montreal-based Maluuba , a company aiming to create "literate machines" that can process and communicate information more like humans do.

Some see Bing as the overlooked foundation to those efforts.

"They're getting a huge amount of data across a lot of different contexts -- mobile devices, image searches," said Larry Cornett, a former executive for Yahoo's search engine. "Whether it was intentional or not, having hundreds of millions of queries a day is exactly what you need to power huge artificial intelligence systems."

Bing launched in 2009 as a rebranding of...

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