Can Cortana Live Up to Her Personality?

Tom Simonite recently published a piece in Technology Review about  the capabilities of Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant. Simonite spoke with Larry Heck, an engineer at Microsoft and a contributor to the Cortana project. According to the article, Cortana has some key capabilities that distinguish it from Apple’s Siri.

CortanaHeck contends that Cortana can track the meaning and context of conversations longer than Siri can. In the article, Simonite uses the example of someone asking Cortana to find a cheap Japanese restaurant close by. Once Cortana returns results, the virtual assistant is able to correctly respond to follow up queries such as “Which ones are still open?” and “How long will it take me to get there?” The ability to maintain the context of the conversation during these simple follow up questions would be a noticeable  improvement over current virtual assistant technologies.

By using the capabilities of Microsoft’s Bing search engine, Heck says that engineers are also developing ways for Cortana to access knowledge from the web in real time to respond to people’s questions.

Simonite also spoke with  Norman Winarsky, VP of SRI Venture at SRI International, for his insights. Winarsky makes two points that I find especially interesting. The first point is that user expectations are much higher for virtual assistants that are given a human personality. Users just naturally expect a virtual assistant in the persona for a “Siri” or a “Cortana” to be able to understand them and communicate with them according to the rules of natural human conversation. Simple mistakes in the dialog, which happen frequently with today’s limited conversational technology, aren’t easily forgiven and quickly cause user frustration. Simonite speculates that these unmet expectations may contribute to the fact that few people are actually using Siri. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that users are less frustrated by the personality-free Google Now.

The second point is that virtual assistants are much more effective when they’re implemented for a narrow, specialized area. They run into trouble  when they try to go broad. Winarsky points out that Siri was originally designed to handle queries for travel and entertainment. It’s much easier for a virtual assistant to understand questions and respond appropriately if the context of the queries is limited to a specific domain. Once Siri was expected to handle a much broader range of inquiries, the performance of the technology suffered.

Although there’s no discussion of web self-service virtual assistants (along the lines of Nuance’s Nina) in Simonite’s article, the same two observations probably still apply. Intelligent virtual agents that act as extensions of a brand’s customer service can perform reasonably well, because the range of questions they’re likely to receive is limited. On the other hand, the more such virtual agents are designed to mimic human call agents, the quicker customers are likely to become frustrated by the technological limitations.

It will be interesting to keep an eye on Cortana and see if this relatively new personal virtual assistant can live up to the early hype. At the same time, we’ll be on the lookout for how vendors of personal assistants and web self-service virtual agents handle the dual challenges of personality and specialization (or the move away from it).


Cortana Demo Released – Does It Look like “Her”?

Cortana and Her.jpgThe Verge reported that a demo of Microsoft’s digital personal assistant Cortana for Windows 8.1 was released today. Cortana is represented by a circular spinning sphere image that looks remarkably similar to the image used in Spike Jonze’s Her movie to represent the intelligent operating system Samantha. Is the similarity just a coincidence, I wonder? Another similarity: as part of the set-up process, the system asks you personal questions so that it can learn more about you.

In the demo, Cortana doesn’t ask about your relationship with your mother(!), but it does appear to ask what you like to do, what you enjoy reading, and what your culinary preferences are. It has you choose from among a list of multiple choice answers for each question. Cortana presumably stores your responses in the Notebook feature that The Verge reported on in an earlier article and that we wrote about last week in the “privacy fence” post.

According to The Verge, Microsoft will officially launch the Cortana mobile personal assistant in April at their Build conference. You can see some still shots of Cortana by checking out this Verge post from earlier today.

Cortana and Foursquare – Coming to a Smartphone Near You?

Today the Verge reported on recent speculated developments concerning Microsoft’s Cortana mobile personal assistant. The article sites Bloomberg News for information that Cortana will be part of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8. 1. Cortana is expected to launch in April and will incorporate location-aware features from none other than Foursquare.  The Bloomberg article states that Microsoft has invested $15 million in Foursquare.

CortanaSo how will Microsoft use Foursquare’s location data in its new personal assistant? Knowing the user’s location will allow Cortana to send out discounts and other promotions and tips for stores in the user’s vicinity. According to the Bloomberg report, this push technology will be an opt-in feature.

Science Fiction fans may be reminded of stories and novels by Philip K. Dick, who presciently predicted the ubiquity of “personalized” advertisements. His visions of flying cars and jalopies to Mars may not have panned out yet, but it looks like his insights on the future of advertising sure will. Dick imagined ads as pesky and invasive.  In his novel “The Simulacra” of 1964, Dick writes:

Something sizzled to the right of him. A commercial [..] had attached itself to his car. [..] Chic crushed it with his foot.

Can Cortana, and other mobile personal assistants armed with location data, figure out a way to alert users to nearby, interesting promotions without being perceived as annoying? That remains to be seen. If personal assistants are familiar enough with a user’s preferences, the chances increase that they’ll select only those promotions the user really wants to hear about. Hopefully it won’t come to Philip K. Dick’s vision of errant ads rudely invading our private spaces. On the other hand, nobody wants to miss out on a great sale of their favorite product or brand that’s right under their nose! Balancing the need for privacy against the desire for timely, relevant information is a skill mobile personal assistants will need to perfect.