Cortana, Your Personal Assistant

Microsoft's new AI is Cortana, and it wants to be your personal assistant.


(Cortana wants to get to know you. Really get to know you.)

It seems odd to refer to smartphone software as a "she," but that human element is exactly what Microsoft is after with its new Windows Phone digital assistant. Cortana, named after her fictional counterpart in the video game series Halo, takes notes, dictates messages and offers up calendar alerts and reminders.

But her real standout characteristic, and the one Microsoft's betting heavily on, is the ability to strike up casual conversations with users; what Microsoft calls "chitchat." Next to Apple's Siri, Cortana is the only other smartphone assistant to come with a baked-in personality. And it's hard not to see the parallels between Cortana and the affable, Scarlett Johansson-voiced AI in Spike Jonze's film Her.

Confident, caring, competent, loyal; helpful, but not bossy: These are just some of the words Susan Hendrich, the project manager in charge of overseeing Cortana's personality, used to describe the program's most significant character traits. "She's eager to learn and can be downright funny, peppering her answers with banter or a comeback," Hendrich said. "She seeks familiarity, but her job is to be a personal assistant."

Fans of Frederik Pohl of course recognize that amazing Joymaker, the networked personal device from his prophetic 1965 novel The Age of the Pussyfoot. Microsoft engineers are dreaming that you might have an interaction like this with your Microsoft phone - and Cortana:

"Gripes," he said, "tell me something. What would you do, right now, if you were me?"

The joymaker answered without hesitation, as though that sort of question were coming up every day. "If I were you, Man Forrester, which is to say, if I were human, just unfrozen, without accommodations, lacking major social contacts, unemployed, unskilled—"

"That's the picture, all right," Forrester agreed. "So answer the question." Something was crawling underfoot. He stepped aside, out of its way, a glittering metal thing.

"I would go to a tea shop, Man Forrester. I would then read my orientation book while enjoying a light meal. I would then think things over. I would then—"

"That's far enough."

The metal thing, apparently espying Forrester's discarded cigarette pack, scuttled over to it and gobbled it down. Forrester watched it for a second, then nodded.

"You've got some good ideas, machine," he said. "Take me to a tea shop!"

See the very nicely done article at Engadget.

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