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During the Microsoft Ignite 2021 conference, which is taking place virtually this week, the company announced new products and updates across the whole of its Azure AI cloud product portfolio. Among other highlights, Microsoft rolled out a semantic search capability in Azure Cognitive Search that enables developers to deliver search results based on intent, as opposed to only keywords. And it launched new features in Form Recognizer — which automates the ingestion of forms to extract key value pairs as JSON objects — to help expedite the processing of certain documents.

The benefits of AI feel intangible at times, but surveys show this hasn’t deterred businesses from adopting the technology in droves. Business use of AI grew a whopping 270% over the past four years, according to Gartner, while Deloitte says 62% of respondents to its corporate October 2018 report deployed some form of AI, up from 53% in 2019. But adoption doesn’t always meet with success, as the roughly 25% of companies that have seen half their AI projects fail will tell you.

With the new and enhanced offerings, Microsoft is aiming to boost the percentage of successful AI and machine learning deployments in the enterprise. For example, in Azure Cognitive Search, Microsoft says its search service for mobile and web app development now allows businesses to use the same capabilities powering search engines like Bing to deliver contextual search experiences in apps.

Most enterprises have to wrangle countless data buckets, some of which inevitably become underused or forgotten. A Forrester survey found that between 60% and 73% of all data within corporations is never analyzed for insights or larger trends. The opportunity cost of this unused data is substantial, with a Veritas report pegging it $3.3 trillion by 2020. That’s perhaps why the corporate sector has taken an interest in cognitive search products like Azure Cognitive Search that ingest, understand, organize, and act on digital content from multiple digital sources.


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“Customers have grown accustomed to using natural language queries in web search engines, but these queries usually do not perform as well when using a traditional keyword-based retrieval approach with ranking only based on term frequencies,” Luis Cabrera-Cordon, program manager for Microsoft’s Azure Cognitive Search team, said in a blog post. “In partnership with the Bing team, we have integrated their semantic search investments — 100s of development years and millions of dollars in compute time — into our query infrastructure, effectively enabling any developer to leverage this investment over searchable content that you own and manage.”

Semantic search in Azure Cognitive Search leverages natural language techniques, specifically concept matching and synonym search, to improve the relevance and ranking of search results and deliver a more personalized search flow for users. It also ties in with a new SharePoint connector that makes it easier to ingest and explore SharePoint content.

“With the release of semantic search, now we can enable a ranking algorithm that will use [machine learning] to rank the articles based on how ‘meaningful’ they are relative to the query,” Cabrera-Cordon explained. He said customers also get semantic answers, which use an AI model that extracts relevant passages from the top documents and then ranks them on their likelihood of being an answer to the query. He added that Azure Cognitive Search can now “extract the most relevant section of each document returned so you can quickly skim through the results and see if they have the content that you care about, making it easier for you to triage the results briefly and go deeper into the ones that you think are relevant given your context.”

In other news, Microsoft announced that Form Recognizer, an Azure Cognitive Service, is introducing support for prebuilt IDs and invoice extraction, plus the ability to read data in 64 additional languages.

Process discovery and automation is understandably big business. Forrester estimates that robotic process automation (RPA) and related subfields created jobs for 40% of companies in 2019. According to a McKinsey survey, at least a third of activities could be automated in about 60% of occupations, which might be why Market and Markets anticipates the RPA market alone will be worth $493 billion by 2022.

The new prebuilt IDs feature in Form Recognizer enables the automated extraction of data from passports and driver’s licenses, supporting services like online banking transactions, travel check-in, and hotel registration. As for the data extraction from invoices component, Microsoft says it will help customers extract text, key-value pairs, and tables from documents to produce structured data that reflects the relationships in files without manual data labeling or intensive coding.

Form Recognizer’s language support will expand to 73 languages this month from the existing nine. English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch are generally available, and Simplified Chinese and Japanese are in preview.

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