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Cortana: The Personal Digital Assistant of the Future?

Posted by cfeehan on July 31, 2015

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AI. I know, I know, we’re a bit obsessed. But can you blame us? It’s so cool! Computers that can think, sometimes more effectively than humans? How do you NOT get wrapped up in that? Hollywood appears to be as enthralled as we are, as more and more AI movies are being released on the subject. A great example is Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix. Her takes the concept of a digital personal assistant to the next level, by entertaining the idea of having an intimate relationship with the futuristic equivalent of Siri. Seems crazy, right? Having a relationship, or even a friendship, with a computer?

But now, with the release of Windows 10 on Wednesday, it looks like things are beginning to change. When you install Windows 10, one included feature is Cortana, your very own personal digital assistant. Right off the bat, Cortana wants to know everything about you. And not basic things like “what’s your name” and “what’s your address”. According to people who have activated Cortana, she asks things like, “What’s the most enjoyable part of your everyday evening?” and “What do you look for when you want to catch up on the world?” Apparently, she asks these things so she can get “smarter” about your preferences…or is it because she wants to get closer to your heart?? Okay, I may have watched Her a few too many times. 

Microsoft says that Cortana is likely to be around for decades, getting smarter and more powerful while collecting information about users in her digital "notebook”. Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research, says that in the future, Microsoft wants to use Cortana as the glue that sticks all its different applications together.

Sources suspect that if Cortana can comfortably be both intelligent and personable, she may surpass competitors and become the gold standard of personal virtual assistants.

Susan Hendrick, a product manager on the Cortana team at Microsoft, said that this balance is being achieved by having teams around the globe work on Cortana's software. There are language specialists, sociologists, entertainment writers, and comedians, and in each respective country Cortana is launching in, they've all been asked to make Cortana feel as homegrown as possible. In China, for instance, Cortana comes across as a “big sister” that most Chinese smartphone owners never had, and this is hinted at mostly in the tone and pitch of the voice. In the UK, Cortana more closely resembles a cheeky and self-deprecating assistant that still manages to maintain a formal demeanor. In the US, Microsoft wants Cortana to resemble the kind of co-worker you can work well with and still get a drink at the end of the day. Now that’s a lot of customization! Here’s an example of one of her jokes:

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I like your style, Cortana. +5 points for my new digital friend.

If the name Cortana rings a bell, no, you’re not crazy. Cortana is the name of the AI in Halo; she and Microsoft’s Cortana are even voiced by the same woman. If you don’t play Halo and you’ve still heard the name before, it’s probably because Microsoft first released a test Cortana for its Windows Phone software in April 2014, so she’s been around for a while. It’s just that now, she’s more advanced and definitely more personalized. Check out a video of her answering questions in her sarcastic, witty way below. You’ll even find that she’s programmed to be a huge geek – Star Trek and Space Odyssey references galore! 

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So although Cortana can’t carry out full-length conversations yet, or learn to love a human being like Samantha, the AI Operating System in the movie Her, she’s still pretty intriguing. And from what I’ve read, she has a lot of potential for growth. We’ll definitely be on the lookout for further updates but for now, we hope you enjoy playing with the newest version of Cortana available on Windows 10! 

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Caitlin Feehan, Blogger & Editor


Converse have been my footwear of choice for the past 9 years, I’m convinced that all doors and sidewalks are conspiring against me, and I enjoy sticking my head out of the passenger window on long car rides.