Say Hello to Cortana, Microsoft’s New Intelligent Agent

Posted by at 11:33 am on April 2, 2014

Cortana BelfioreIn the Windows Phone 8.1 show at Build 2014, Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore also demo’d Cortana, the virtual assistant that’s Microsoft’s answer to Google Now and Siri. Actually, Cortana’s kind of a blend of Google Now and Siri—a bouncy, bubbly sphere UI that’s powered by Bing’s deep and powerful Satori knowledge engine.

Cortana has a Siri-esque personality, responding to personal questions from Belfiore with jokes. For example, when Belfiore asked what Cortana thought of her appearance, she responded “Some things I resemble: A hula hoop, a donut… and a halo.” (The last is a sly reference to Cortana’s origins; she’s named after the Cortana A.I. central to the popular Halo video game series.)

Cortana’s true strength appears to lie in context, however.  Cortana will be a smarter personal assistant by gathering data from third-party services to inform her responses.

“Her” smarts are augmented by data provided by third-party services such as Yelp, which Belfiore showed off by searching for a restaurant during the demo, as well as contextual information about you—yes, you—drawn from your email, travel notifications, contacts, interests, and more. Even better, you don’t have to manually tell Cortana your desires; she automatically infers information based on your actions (which you then have to confirm).

The added info is designed to give Cortana a more personal touch and provide contextual, “just-in-time” notifications a la Google Now. But fear not, privacy freaks: The digital assistant has a granular and customizable “Notebook” that allows you to block or grant Cortana access to specific information silos and functions.

Cortana responds to natural-language commands, and the mixture of deep data and personal information allows her to perform Google Now-esque tasks, such as finding nearby restaurants, finding and converting information on the Internet, or scheduling alarms and reminders, all using natural language.

Cortana can also juggle reminders and appointments and alert you to conflicts. In fact, Cortana’s smart enough to know if a newly scheduled reminder conflicts with a previous appointment, notifying you of concerns and offering to reschedule something if necessary.

Microsoft’s also allowing developers to access Cortana’s voice commands. Belfiore used Cortana to verbally add a show to his Hulu Plus cue and open up Terry Myerson’s Facebook page on stage.  Cortana’s launching as a beta in the US before eventually expanding to UK, Canada, China, and beyond in the coming months.

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