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Microsoft announced AI-focused Power Platform products at its Microsoft Ignite 2021 conference, which kicked off in earnest today. Among the highlights is Power Automate Desktop for Windows 10 users, a robotic process automation service (RPA) that automates tasks within Windows across various apps. New Power Virtual Agents features were also unveiled.
RPA — technology that automates monotonous, repetitive chores traditionally performed by human workers — is big business. Forrester estimates that RPA and other AI subfields created jobs for 40% of companies in 2019 and that a tenth of startups now employ more digital workers than human ones. According to a McKinsey survey, at least a third of activities could eventually be automated in about 60% of occupations.
Power Automate Desktop for Windows 10, which arrives after Microsoft acquired RPA startup Softomotive, provides an attended RPA solution to automate tasks in SharePoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, and third-party business apps. Web and desktop recorders capture steps in an automation, and a visual drag-and-drop designer organizes flows logically, with over 370 prebuilt actions that connect to a number of different applications.
In other news, Microsoft revealed a new set of capabilities for Power Virtual Agents, its service that allows customers to create chatbots via a web graphical interface. Bots created with Power Virtual Agents can now learn and improve over time, thanks to AI-driven natural language learning. The bots automatically learn from conversations and improve their ability to parse what’s being said. In addition, AI-driven personalization capabilities allow the bots to use the details the system already has — such as a ZIP code or address — in future chats with the same user. And topic suggestion and AI-driven topic tuning help bot authors discover new subjects to build and improve topic triggering.
Autonomous customer service agents are fast becoming the rule rather than the exception, partly because consumers seem to prefer it that way. According to research published last year by Vonage subsidiary NewVoiceMedia, 25% of people prefer to have their queries handled by a chatbot or other self-service alternative, and Salesforce says roughly 69% of consumers choose chatbots for quick communication with brands.
Microsoft also introduced today what it’s calling Microsoft PowerFx, a low-code computer language for logic customization across the Power Platform that will soon be available on GitHub. Expressed in text, Microsoft says PowerFx is modeled after Excel functions and provides flexibility to start with formulas and add code using popular developer tools.
Over the next 24 months, Microsoft plans to expand PowerFx from Canvas app components in Power Apps, where it’s currently used, to Power Virtual Agents, Power Automate, and more.
“As organizations rethink entire business models, low-code solutions are increasingly considered imperative to empower anyone to collaborate and build transformational solutions,” Microsoft CVP Charles Lamanna and VP Arun Ulag said. “We are doubling down on our efforts to help everyone across an organization accelerate business with low-code solutions.” They added that these new capabilities for Microsoft Power Platform “connect low-code experiences across the business to solve companywide strategic objectives and ensure security and governance.”
In a related development, Microsoft launched a preview of new features for Power BI Premium, its self-service analytics platform. The update includes architectural updates for across-the-board improvements to performance, stability, and security, as well as autoscale, which automatically adds capacity to meet peak workloads and utilization metrics. There’s also a preview price list release of Premium Per User, which enables customers to license Premium features on a per-user basis, and out-of-box tenant analytics reports to provide visibility across the Power Platform.
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