Microsoft patent imagines Cortana as an email master on the go

Surface Headphones
Surface Headphones (Image credit: Daniel Rubino/Windows Central)

Microsoft patent for Cortana email summary

Source: Microsoft/USPTO (Image credit: Source: Microsoft/USPTO)

What you need to know

  • A Microsoft patent imagines a smarter future for how Cortana handles emails and messages.
  • The patent describes methods for a digital assistant to read and summarize the important points your emails for you.
  • This would allow the digital assistant to give you the salient portions of emails when you can't otherwise look at a screen to read them yourself.

A newly unearthed Microsoft patent (via Windows United) would make perusing your emails and messages on the go a whole lot easier. Designed for digital assistants, the patent describes a way for them to seek out the most important bits of information from your inbox, summarize them, and read them to you in a way that's easy to digest.

From the patent's abstract:

The messages are from one or more message sources and each message comprising message data that includes text. The method further includes operations for analyzing the message data to determine a meaning of each message, for generating a score for each message on the respective message data and the meaning of the message, and for generating a textual summary for the message based on the message scores and the meaning of the messages.

Once the summary is generated, it can then be played back on a speaker or headset and dealt with through a prompt. The main thrust here is to make email much easier to consume when you can't look at a screen. As an example, Microsoft imagines someone jogging and using an assistant through their earbuds to listen to incoming emails and messages and manage them.

The patent fits in with the new work-focused nature of Cortana and Microsoft's focus on AI in general. The company has shifted Cortana from competing with Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa in a consumer-facing sense. Rather, the company is now tapping the intelligence that undergirds Cortana to create more intelligent systems for more business and behind-the-scenes tasks.

While this move has meant some undesirable outcomes for Cortana as we know it on mobile devices, Microsoft has been vocal in how it sees Cortana's transformation into the backbone of its productivity efforts. This is highlighted in some new capabilities Microsoft is currently testing with Windows Insiders. Still, it's a major shift that has already ruffled some feathers among those who would like to see Cortana compete more directly with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa in the consumer speaker space.

Dan Thorp-Lancaster

Dan Thorp-Lancaster is the former Editor-in-Chief of Windows Central. He began working with Windows Central, Android Central, and iMore as a news writer in 2014 and is obsessed with tech of all sorts. You can follow Dan on Twitter @DthorpL and Instagram @heyitsdtl

  • I understand why Microsoft doesn't want Cortana to compete with Google and Amazon but I think they are having tunnel vision with their productivity only focus. Today there is so much overlap between work productivity and personal productivity it would be inconvenient and difficult for users to have to repeatedly switch between multiple assistants to accomplish different tasks. I have more than just a work email that I need checked for appointments, flights and events. I want to be reminded when my next marketing meeting is as much as I need to be reminded to pick up milk on the way home from work. I run into situations at work and in public where I may need a translator, need a word defined or a simple question answered. Even given the example in the patent of a runner checking her work related emails and texts, I'm sure at some point she'll also want to ask how many miles she's ran, what's her heart rate and to play a certain artist on her headphones. She will not want to have to switch assistants back and forth to do all that stuff. I guess if Cortana can become smart enough to be the "executive assistant" that could coordinate between other assistants for specific tasks she isn't able to handle, then Cortana just might have a future. Might.
  • I agree with your argument and I see their current approach as more of a way to gain traction with cortana and not necessarily the end goal. Similar to the rumored Microsoft teams branching out to "teams for life" or the office subscription branching out to a consumer based subscription that will probably include other more consumer based services.
  • If you look at how the industry is going I think we will see all the AI's working together some how. Google know business wise that they don't have the market share in anything where Microsoft know they don't have the customer side. Working together on this especially now Microsoft are having a dabble in Android could see the AI's working together alot more and be cross platform.
    The way I see it for me cortana especially on windows phone was always way ahead of the others but due to lack of smart support and home use Alexa and Google took the crown. AI is still new and going to be interesting going forward on how they start to work and work together.
  • In my opinion, Cortana is still way ahead. On no other platform, with no other system, do I have as much hands-free control. None.
  • Microsoft will retreat systematically and slowly into oblivion if they unable to compete in highly mobile space.
    Originally that was their vision.. unfortunately they've taken retreat after retreat. I guess the pattern will continue.
  • Google has as many failed, failing, and discontinued products as MS, if not more. Using Colbert's term, it feels like MS fails more so it must be true and many hang mobile failures around their neck (deservedly). But MS is still holds onto the title of the single most dominant tech company of the past 50 years. Many come and go or ebe and flow. Not MS. They are the only tech company to stay a top of company in the sector with no signs of ceding. MS's only fault is they are not currently #1. But if they were, people would still hate them, as they did in the 90s when they were #1. In short, haters gonna hate.
  • Google's failures aren't the same as Microsoft's, they aren't high profile. Shutting down an RSS reader or social network isn't the same as a mobile platform, wearables, or digital assistant.
  • It may be just me being an old fart, but I'm not at work when I'm jogging; why would I want to check work mails and appointments? Or even check private mails; when I'm jogging, I'll concentrate on breathing and the traffic!
    Why would I trust an AI to check my emails at all? How would I know it wasn't missing some vital info?
    I also don't see any benefit in having an AI handle my calendar; way too many variables that it wouldn't know about - Could I manage the hairdresser between two meetings? This person can only attend meetings on Mondays and Fridays. That person often postpones meetings, so make sure there's extra room in the calendar. And so on...
  • Well, these days, a lot of work gets done--or at least coordinated--in non-work settings. So, I get their idea. But, this is once again where I think Microsoft has completely missed it. For those of us who DO accomplish some work in non-work settings, the LAST thing I want to do is be forced to log in or out of work or personal accounts just to get things done no matter where I'm at. I NEED the ability, the choice, to link these things. Microsoft isn't even following their own logic. As for trust, I guess that's the difference between me and a lot of people. I rely constantly on Cortana giving me hands-free access to so much. I rely on OneDrive as both a nexus for our data/media and as a backup to it. If a properly built AI and assistant front-end can see interact w/my personal calendar, my family calendar and my work calendar, this is a huge help. There was a time when Cortana would recognize an upcoming appointment on my calendar and would see that my location was "x" miles away from it...Cortana would let me know when I should start heading toward my appointment. It's about AWARENESS. As for your point about negotiating meeting attendees, a good AI would be able to see when/where you want to hold the meeting and then offer to contact the attendees for availability---assuming the attendees didn't also have sufficiently outward-facing calendars. Sadly, most people do NOT keep everything in their calendars. I do. I keep work meetings, vacations, things we regularly attend, rehearsals, parties, etc., all in my calendar. I get far too many requests on my time NOT to keep them in there. Unfortunately, where I work doesn't allow any sort of linking of anything internal (e.g., Teams, Outlook, OneDrive) to our personal world. So, I always have to create duplicate appointment entries at work and on my personal account. On my work account I can see when other attendees are available or not. But I can't see their status outside of the work account. This is the kind of thing that will limit Cortana or any AI.
  • MS is out of their freaking minds of they think anyone is going to turn their email over to cortana. Google, Amazon, even my bank each has cortana competitors. Enough already. This is beyond stupid. People do know how to actually read, and they don't want email content announced to the entire office.
  • They don't expect anyone to actually use Cortana, except for a few fanboys. They said they are only keeping it around for experimenting. “We also think that there may be some roles for standalone assistants as an experimentation place for us to try out new ideas still. I think this point has been made a lot, but…the assistant landscape is rich with opportunity, and very not rich with actual results, sometimes. And so the opportunity to continue to try things quickly is important to us as well.” They aren't expecting much.
  • I already do, to the extent that I can. I have no problem with it. I always have Cortana ask me if I'd like incoming texts read to me (something you can't do on other platforms). If I could have that with email, I'm golden. Yes, I do know how to read. But when I'm working on something and my hands are full, hands-free capability is a must. And I often have hands-free interactions with Cortana at work, by the way.
  • I don't see why Microsoft can't give everyone everything they want. There is absolutely no reason why Microsoft can't continue to shift Cortana's focus to more function over form while still competing in the smart device market. Same with the Xbox One. Their initial vision was to appeal to casual gamers then they overcorrected when the hardcore gamers got upset and they ended up with a console that doesn't appeal the the vast majority of everyone. Microsoft seems to be so afraid of the adage about not trying to be everything to everyone that they end up just doing nothing. Xbox One, Mixed Reality, Windows Phone... How many devices have been better than everything out there that Microsoft did nothing with?
  • Windows Phone and Windows MR weren't better than the competition, they weren't even close. Oculus is a way better experience and Windows Phone was half baked as Microsoft themselves admitted. I wonder if the antitrust lawsuits prevented them from putting effort into MR too?
  • And you're wrong.
  • Absolutely your opinion. Windows Phone with Cortana was a fantastic product. It did everything that I wanted they way I wanted it done and Cortana of old was great when driving. It actually did what I asked without fuss. Neither Android or IOS had the same ease of use at the time. Now that I was forcefully moved away from Cortana I just find it a chore to use the same or similar features from the main stream alternatives. Hands Free Driving was hands down superior. Sadly WINMO never picked up and died and along with it Cortana.
  • "How many devices have been better than everything out there that Microsoft did nothing with?" How many devices have sucked that Microsoft lost billions of dollars on?
  • So now I can reply to an email even when I am taking a leak! Thanks Microsoft..
  • But... Will Cortana be a better Outlook search than the Lookout Outlook Add-in was?