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May 30, 2014

Microsoft: Cortana is much more than just a voice assistant

As Microsoft readies Cortana for UK release, it claims that Bing is soon to play a decisive role in the smart home battle.

By Ben Sullivan

Speaking at the Covent Garden Microsoft Apartment yesterday, Anand Krishnan, senior director and developer at Microsoft UK, explained how Cortana is much more than a voice assistant.

Krishnan described how Cortana is actually the vocal incarnation of Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, which will soon play an important role in connected homes all across the world. That is, homes that choose to use Microsoft rather than Google or Apple.

Cortana is billed by Microsoft as "the world’s first truly personal digital assistant," and has a persona inspired by a much-loved "Halo" video game character. It’s worth noting at this point that Microsoft often gives Cortana the gender-specific pronoun of a female. Cortana is a she.

"Powered by Bing, Cortana gets to know you and gets better over time by asking questions based on your behavior and checking in with you before she assumes you’re interested in something. She detects and monitors the stuff you care about, looks out for you throughout the day, and helps filter out the noise so you can focus on what matters to you," said a Microsoft statement.

Krishnan said: "Take a step back. People look at Bing and they think we’re a search engine. That is certainly one aspect; that we’re a search index. But that is only one aspect.

"Bing does a whole lot more. Bing understands voice. It understands gestures and touch. It can recognise objects in photos. It can even recognise one single object, like a wing of an airplane. It sees that as one single entity.

"It understands that people are a different kind of entity. Bing does all of these things."

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As a Skype call came through to the Microsoft Apartment’s living room, Ian Moulster, a Microsoft product manager, instructed Bing to answer, just by voice.

The Microsoft Apartment has been set up in a £6m flat in the heart of Covent Garden to showcase what Microsoft’s vision of a connected home is. Representatives were clear on stating that this vision is available now, not in the near-future. "You can have all of this now, as long as you have a credit card," joked Krishan.


"…Cortana, answer Skype…"

The coming-to-life of Cortana, which will be rolled out to UK Windows Phone users this summer, is just one example of Bing at work.

"Cortana, if you let her, will read your emails, look in your calendar. She will keep track of everything that matters to you and figure out you usage, and what is work and what is home. Cortana is the voice of Bing.

"Most of all, it’s got the ability to learn. Just like a neural network. So Bing will actually watch things and get better over time. What you’ve got is a smart, intelligent player than can absorb the internet."

Cortana is voice activated, and she replaces the search functions on Windows Phone and appears as a Live tile.

Her knowledge and information is sucked from Microsoft’s cloud, and she is constantly learning about not only you, but the world around us.

Users’ personal information is stored in a ‘notebook’, which keeps data like travel patterns, work and home times, and reminders. All of this can be turned off if you wish.

One area that Cortana may excel in here is the fact that she is available to third party developers. Apple’s Siri is not. Cortana could be developed to work with any apps, and Microsoft has already demonstrated Cortana working with Facebook and Skype.

The scope for third party development is impressive. It could mean that Cortana would be tailored to the niche specifics of individual users.

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