Microsoft is trying to make AI more human, may influence Cortana

Just how intelligent are virtual assistants on mobile operating systems? Touted as helpful features, consumers can ask natural questions to their Windows Phone, iOS or Android device and retrieve information, but these assistants are coded by human hand, and thus have boundaries on what they can perform before retreating to a simple web search.

Microsoft is looking at more advanced artificial intelligence (AI) for deployment on not only its own platforms, but also in the real world too.

Eric Horvitz, managing director of Microsoft's research unit, recently sat down with the BBC for an interview on what the solution is to expanding the functionality of virtual assistants. He believes improvements have to be made for computers to look beyond questions posed by users.

"The ability of a system to understand more broadly what the overall context of a communication is turns out to be very important. There are some critical signals in context. These include location, time of day, day of week, user patterns of behaviour, current modality - are you driving, are you walking, are you sitting, are you in your office."

Essentially, AI needs to have common sense and sport the ability to understand the meaning behind just a few words spoken by people throughout the world. Horvitz goes into quite some detail in his interview, stating that software needs to learn how to stimulate the rhythm and beat of the way humans converse with one another. For this to happen, the AI would have to calculate a response before the person finishes speaking, rather than waiting until the person finishes.

Microsoft is reportedly using Cortana from the popular video game series Halo to create a new virtual assistant for its Windows platforms. Cortana is an interesting example of an AI, because it's able to understand and react to conversations and situations. While being entirely fictional, the end result for artificial intelligence in the real world should match the level of sophistication that of Cortana in the Halo universe.


Should you ask your smartphone for a pizza and the AI is unable to complete the request for whatever reason, you would naturally ask for the location of a nearby Italian restaurant. The software would then store this for future reference. The next time you ask for a pizza, the assistant would know that you would possibly be after a local restaurant, thus adapting, learning and providing you with said information. It's not an AI with a virtual brain, but more the ability to understand.

We'll have to see what Microsoft (as well as Apple and Google) bring to the table in the future. What we do know is you won't be seeing Hollywood AI anytime soon. Head on over to the BBC website for the full interview, including video footage.

Source: BBC; thanks, Sam, for the heads up!

Rich Edmonds
Senior Editor, PC Build

Rich Edmonds was formerly a Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

  • So excited!
  • Cooooll daddy of Siri and android..!! ;)
  • Yay for old news!
  • So you mean, we won't see cortana this year
  • Where did you get this? He meant we wouldn't see cortana from halo, I.e. That level of sophistication. At least, that is what I understood.
  • txDrum that's how I understood it as well.
  • Cortana is in WP8.1 so yeah we will see it this year.
  • You will not see Cortana, as she is in the game, anytime in the next 5 years. He means it as in basically an artificial lifeform.
  • The way I understand it is that non-American WP users will probably be getting it in 2015 or 2016. It sucks I know. Posted via the WPC App for Android!
  • Yes it sucks, but remember its non trivial to translate virtual voice assistants to other languages :(
  • We'll take english, thank you very much. :-)
  • I can see it now: "Ugly Americans...forcing their English language on us..." haha
  • Even if it takes another year I hope they can implement Cortana's voice. It sounds like such an awesome idea for a learning virtual assistant. They see how excited everyone is for Cortana so they should definitely take it into thought.
  • Jen Taylor is the voice actress of Cortana. They need to bite the bullet and hire her for this. It's not like they couldn't afford it. :-)
  • Doesn't she already work for Microsoft Studios?
  • Technically the Halo property and the hiring of Jen Taylor is done by a Microsoft owned company, rather than Microsoft themselves. They need permission despite owning the company. At least, that's what I read and understood in another article.
  • Yes they can do it, I thought she was doing some undercover voice acting and this is what everyone is thinking of what she is up to.
  • Or is she working on the next Halo? Probably Halo, hopefully both.
  • I read some place that's she's is voicing Cortana. I think I read it here or wmpoweruser.
  • Without taking things too literally...when AngelWRZ tweeted the voices of Cortana from the SDK registry...tom warren tweeted "Don't be so sure if they are using those voices. :)" -Tom jk.
  • If they make cortana say her signature quotes from the game when we ask the appropriate questions.. That would be absolutely brilliant.
  • Too playful. Microsoft is about BUSINESS doncha know! :p Seriously though, I hope so too. And I haven't even played the game!
  • If it's final name is Cortana and the voice is Jen Taylor, I'm changing my spoken name to Chief immediately.
  • You and just about every Xbox gamer that owns a WP lol
  • "Cortana, all I need to know is....what will the weather be like?" "I think we both know the answer to that."
  • I really hope they stick with the name Cortana. Microsoft needs to start leveraging their IP and stick it to the competition.
  • No, they need Cortana to stick to the Halo Universe. Bringing this character beyond the Halo IP taints it makes cortana too ambiquous.
  • Or makes her a realty
  • by the time they ship this, it will be too late. the story of microsoft.
  • Isn't Cortana part of the 8.1 update?
  • 'by the time they ship this, it will be too late. the story of microsoft.'
    So nothing like this on the market, let alone for PC or gaming consoles, but Microsoft will be too late. SMH News flash: mobile is a new tech field. There's no such thing as 'too late'.
  • I think he means that MS will announce this software, to be delivered in 6 months time, and by the time it actually get's released, Google will have quitely made something much better.   That does seem to be the trend of the last several years.  MS is moving incredibly slowly and always playing catch up.  There is simply no way in which any of their new products are ahead of the competition.  All their advantages remain in legacy products.
  • Except that in this case they may not. What you may not realize is that Microsoft spends much more on R&D than Google or Apple, possibly almost as much as the two of them combined. Microsoft Research is also one of if not the top research labs in the world when it comes to this sort of thing. They've been working on it for many years and employ some of the best in the world. Duplicating that research is not something Google will be able to do on six months or even a year. Now whether Microsoft can successfully turn that research into a marketable product is more of a question mark but I've no doubt that MS is worlds ahead of google when it comes to this sort of tech.
  • You're right, google will come up with something really quick and then update all of their phones in a timely manner...oh wait
  • News flash: Microsoft is already TOO LATE for mobile. And getting late for other tech fields also!
    News flash 2: This has nothing to do with mobile!
  • -____-
  • News flash... I have to poop
  • I love how Microsoft and Nokia are always ready set go to innovate!
  • I'm happy with Tellme in its current state. Anything else is gravy as long as they don't take steps backwards (like MS has done with every WP release in one area or another). It bugs me that on my otherwise killer 1020 I can't get navigation to avoid traffic as I could on my Quantum 2 years ago and my Tilt2 before that, for example.
  • I'm not sure but I think you can do that with waze.
  • Waze does Navigation with traffic.
  • Yeah but Google bought Waze, only a matter of time until it's made unusable on WP
  • Waze will still work as an independent entity
  • Here maps shows traffic now afaik, unless I'm misunderstanding you, which is quite possible?
  • Not here (pun intended :p). Here in my place, here maps doesn't show any traffic. Waze is the only one did since it based on social reporting.
  • What we had in WP7.x was when you type in your destination it would give you the best route based on real-time traffic information. In WM6.x we had this same functionality in the Bing Maps program (now known to the masses as 'apps'). HERE Drive+ doesn't do this and I don't touch anything Google. I'd imagine some of the paid nav apps do it, but the comment I made was referring to features we once had that we no longer have.
  • Navigon does that. Best navigation app anyway. Waze is terrible compared to Navigon. Navigon Europe Navigon USA  
  • Used to have a stand alone navigon GPS that included traffic. The antenna for the traffic data was in the power adapter. Six months or so after I got it, the cord went bad (short in the cable). Went through heck trying to find their US support and when I finally did they would no longer support the hardware. They wouldn't even sell me the cable. Told me I just needed to buy a new $200 unit. Yeah, screw that. They lost me as a customer for life at that point no matter how good their products were.
  • Sometimes you too need to start something over again, huh? Sometimes you need to take 2 steps back, if you think you're going in the wrong direction IMO...
  • Today only my professor said, " Now days everything talks"
  • I hope they bring it to Xbox and windows 8 soon after!
  • And I hope it "learns" according to the account logged in, and ties all that leaned info together on all platforms.
  • Naturally. It has been stated by others that cortana will become like a context aware framework behind Microsoft's software, so its only natural they sync "her" contextual info between systems.
  • It would go nicely if she was incorporated into smart homes too.
  • Only tangentially related, but I found TellMe in WP infuriating at first... I spoke VERY clearly, slowly and enunciated everything, and it would get the most ridiculous text into the phone. It wasn't until I just gave up and started speaking faster like I normally do that it actually got better results. I always found that odd and counterintuitive, the opposite of how a human listener would react.
  • Maybe when you spoke slow it felt like you were being condescending. LoL
  • Is this lady gonna come on screen when its activated??? ;-)
  • Oh my!
  • It still baffles me that TellMe lacks voice control for the music player.
  • Yeah, that should absolutely be added.
  • You can get extreme music player installed. It has voice control capabilities.
  • It does have some voice control ... you can say something like "play Led Zepplin". There is also an app called "Hey DJ" which works pretty well. I use it with my motorcycle headset. you start off by starting Tell Me, then say "Open Hey DJ". You can then say "Hey DJ" followed by commands like play, surprise me, pause, whats playing? and so on.
  • I hope we get custom notificationtones for WPCentral. Why is it taking so long. Just give It to us.
  • Jay Bennet has a life too....
  • Considering that they have a Kinect 2.0 packed in every box, this kind of technology could possibly be brought over to the Xbox One as well as Windows Phone and Windows platforms.. Interesting stuff
  • I really don't care if the AI is more human. I just want it to work. I'd also like to see more Devs implement the built in comms, I think I only have like 5 apps use the "Open to..." command.
  • "I really don't care if the AI is more human. I just want it to work"
    That's what they mean by 'more human' in that in will work. Derp.
  • They mean that it'll be easier for us to use common langue and it'll understand that better, but I don't care if I have to say "WP do this" like a robot. Being able to use a more casual tone or langue isn't my top concern when it comes to voice commands. I just want it to do common things like play my music without the need for an app Anything other than doing it's basic needs is gimmicky(one of the reasons I think Siri is retarded).
  • Well, being more "natural" and context aware I assume it'd do that.
  • Agreed. I could do media control with the MS Voice Command software on my old WM 5/6 phones. Why can I STILL not do it with WP8? I also hope they open up the TTS/STT APIs for any app to use.
  • "too human" : you get in fights with her, she hijacks your phone xD
  • Lol. Scary, ain't it? Skynet things.
  • Cool! I think they should call it "Skynet"... It had a ring to it... ...but we all know it had to be called OneNet to avoid legal troubles ;-)
  • They need to hire Scarlett Johansson. We will have Her in our pockets, how cool is that? And she has hot voice :-)))) 
  • Ok I see where the end of the post can be misleading. But Cortana is or should be in 8.1. The post clearly says "AI" won't be seen for a while. Considering they state there working on it or are in the process of understanding it let alone having made it already. Im sure its a WP9.1 update haha
  • Clearly the tech in Cortana and this AI are inter-related. While a lot of it won't be in Cortana that ships, it will certainly be an extension of this project. My guess is it already has as Cortana came out of MS Research too. Think Cortana v1.0 versus 2.0.
  • If they make Cortana say things relating to halo and use Halo to promote it, it could make a huge user base of Halo fans switch to Windows Phone. I also understand that they want to keep it professional, but they need to find a midpoint.
  • I have a feeling that this isn't coming with WP8.1 but will arrive later.
  • At least 1 thing that isn't IS ONLY
  • What if this AI becomes self-aware and becomes like Skynet. Dan would have to be sent back through time to save us all.
  • Haha!
  • I'll volunteer to go back in time. *collects winning lotto numbers for past 5 yrs*
  • The fact is, AI will always disappoint, because we aren't at the point in Linguistics yet where we even understand how the mind comprehends language. If we don't udnerstand it ourselves, we can't ask a programmer to build it into a computer. It so much more than location and context, but intonation and connotations are supreme here. Even humans get confused at each other's words. 
  • So... everyone is gonna fall in love for the same (virtual) girl? Can we get married like 4 years after? or six? What if we have boyfriends/girlfriends is it treason? What if we have a Cortana and a (identical) Siri in our hands? Would they talk to each other? Would they fight one another? People have to start asking this questions, you know...
  • Oh man. That would be creepy if you put two different users phones next to each other and they start talking and comparing notes.
  • They wouldn't need to talk to comunicate. What they would say about each other's user is what I'm concerned about :)
  • Deeply loyal to their user, but bash everyone else
  • im guessing this isn't coming for YEARS!  hopefully people are not expecting this on windows phone 8.1....
  • The Cortana Assistant will ship in WP8.1, however, this article is referring to the Cortana assistant from Halo, which is actually Artificially Intelligent, vs. Context Aware.
  • Lets hope they never succeed. (i.e. Person of Interest)
  • POI is about a government machine for stopping terrorist attacks that accidentally became an AI. I would think you'd be more scared of an iRobot scenario.
  • Microsoft should get their inspiration from the movie " Her". That is a clear example of what I think Microsoft should strive for.
  • I want Cortana to take my calls when I can't answer them!
  • And if it's a telemarketer she automatically says, "stop calling! Take me off your list!"
  • Lmao. And if it's grandma calling and she accidentally replied "who da f%*k is calling and disturbing my master's sleep?"
  • If they wait any longer it might just be too late. At least if WP doesn't work out, any android phones they develop can utilize the same technology. Hopefully it doesn't come to that.
  • Yay I'm so excited for a evolution of clippy
  • I support them working on the AI, but they really need to get the speech recognition down priority #1. It's pretty bad right now. Having to repeat something 2 or 3 times means it takes more effort and time than if you just did whatever function you intended manually. Cortana will be a big disappointment unless they nail this quickly.
  • I already saw a presentation where there's one live speech, that speech gets texted live in a screen, translated to chinese and spoken with one's voice in chinese. pretty cool :)
  • Cooool
  • Cortana is Her!
  • Sounds awesome!
  • I need this. Totally need it. My voice recognition is already darn good. Cortana added would be pure joy!
  • Skynet
  • Exciting. Can't wait to see what the future holds.
  • Sadly it can't be named Cortana, although I know some of you won't resist...
    What if everyone had a P.A. named Cortana? What if you're in a meeting all talking with/about each other's P.A.? Imagine the mess...
  • Then we should be able to customize the names before confusion sets in a gathering - like in a scenario where Mr. A says "cortana, call my wife" and Mr. B's cortana starts dialing.
  • They might be able to recognize owner's voice, problem is when more than one Cortana is in the picture. Imagine this: "-I talked to Cortana and she said Cortana said Marc won't be able to come."
    So, if you're talking to your Cortana, that can make 3 of them :p