One of the most eagerly awaited features of the new Microsoft Phone 8.1 OS due for release any day now, was the inclusion of Cortana, a personal virtual assistant that will compete against Siri and Google Now. During the BUILD Developer Conference Sascha managed to catch up with the new voice of Windows Phone, who was even kind enough to treat him to a wee song. Catch the video below:
The world of artificial intelligence is still in its early phase of development – at least if you compare what we have today with what science fiction authors have been dreaming up in for the last half-century or so. Google’s early voice search project, code-named ‘Majel’, was named after the female actress that supplied the computer’s voice in Star Trek – Google clearly had a futuristic vision in mind – the idea of an intelligent personal assistant that knows your needs, your schedule and responds to the sound of your voice when needed.
A software based personal assistant now actually makes more sense than ever before as our search data, physical location, calendar information, our taste in music and even our heart-rate and physical activity can all be logged and interpreted by the mobile devices that we carry around with us. The mobile technology world has now become utterly dominated by a triumvirate of arguably, the world’s most powerful technology companies; Google, Apple and Microsoft, each with their own mobile software platforms and accompanying service eco-systems.
Apple have had their pioneering Siri for more than two years, Google has its quickly evolving Google Now service, but until a few weeks ago, Microsoft were once again playing catch up to its two biggest rivals. Then at its BUILD Developer Conference in San Francisco, it launched the beta version of Cortana, an artificial intelligence character that Xbox fans will recall from the Halo video game series.
Cortana will essentially replace the search function in Windows Phone with her intelligence largely pulled from the Bing search engine, backed by the company’s massive cloud computing muscle and language processing subsidiary company TellMe (acquired by Microsoft in 2007). According to Microsoft, Cortana will be socially aware, keeping a notebook of data on the user that can help keep her up to speed about your travel plans and schedules, allowing you to setup reminders for events, but also makes her aware of your your down time and parts of the day when you rather she stay quiet.
In my opinion, the choice of Cortana as the personality for its personal assistant is a really smart move. Firstly, it does a great job of embedding the concept of an established artificial intelligence character that has actually served its time in the sci-fi genre space. The voice is supplied by Jen Taylor who also voiced the video games and will be familiar to fans of the franchise. Plus, let’s not forget that the Cortana that appeared in the Halo series already has a well grafted personality – she was originally based on the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, she can crack jokes, express irritation and impatience and at times even exhibits a sardonic sense of humor. All of this is a backdrop that could allow Microsoft to make the Cortana experience more lifelike, believable and frankly less dull than competing technologies.
A finalized version of Cortana is scheduled to be rolled out in English in the US and UK, plus a Chinese language version in late 2014. Other languages are scheduled for 2015.
In the video below, Cortana is asked to sing a song, she chooses to sing the Irish classic ballad ‘Danny Boy’… Sascha can even detect a slightly drunken tone to her brogue. Perhaps Cortana is already having her own fun with us.