Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella calls Cortana and other voice assistants, ‘dumb as a rock.’ He’s not wrong.
Can generative AI save those ‘glorified’ clock radios we call voice assistants, or is it all just another fad?
What you need to know
- Amazon has recently made drastic cuts to its Alexa team, signaling that voice assistants are not what they were supposed to be.
- Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella weighed in calling all voice assistants "dumb as a rock."
- The question of generative AI invigorating voice assistants is raised.
Voice assistants were all the rage around 2014 when Microsoft’s Cortana was going up against Siri. The prospect of talking to your phone and having it answer questions, trivia, and even insight into your hectic life seemed like the future until we all realized they are unintuitive and fall short of expectations.
Can generative AI change any of that?
We’ve previously argued Amazon’s Alexa, one of the most popular voice assistants, is, by all measures, a complete failure (and Microsoft was right to kill Cortana). That insight may seem odd, but once you remember that Alexa was designed to facilitate shopping on Amazon (not turning on your lights), you realize that not only is Alexa weak, but it costs Amazon a lot of money to maintain.
Now, the Financial Times is weighing in with the headline “Amazon’s big dreams for Alexa fall short,” noting that “Teams working on the ecommerce giant’s voice assistant have been hit hard by the largest cuts in the company’s history” (around 18,000 employees).
Yeah, voice assistants are all a nothing burger in 2023.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella agrees, noting, “They were all dumb as a rock. Whether it’s Cortana or Alexa or Google Assistant or Siri, all these just don’t work. We had a product that was supposed to be the new front-end to a lot of [information] that didn’t work.”
That bluntness hurts but also reflects how Cortana couldn’t save Windows Phone; without mobile, Cortana struggled to find purpose. Eventually, Microsoft hollowed out Cortana, making it an assistant in mobile Outlook, but even that seems anti-climatic for what was supposed to be our first foray into artificial intelligence.
Now the world is focused on generative AI like ChatGPT and Microsoft’s new Bing 'co-pilot.' Microsoft is going hard on the technology as it recently incorporated it into its Edge browser, Bing homepage, mobile apps, Microsoft Editor, and, to a disappointing extent, Windows itself (though there is hope for Windows 12).
Indeed, Microsoft just announced a new event focused on AI and productivity later this month.
Will this time be any different? Siri’s co-creator Adam Cheyer thinks so, noting “I do think it is about quality … Fundamentally, this technology will enable that breadth and flexibility and complexity that has not existed with the previous generation of voice assistants. I think there will be a renaissance.”
Windows Central’s Take
We’ve been talking a lot about Microsoft’s Bing Chat, generative AI, and problems on the Windows Central Podcast. There’s a lot to unpack.
Three questions immediately present themselves considering recent events:
- Is generative AI a pivotal moment in computing or just another flash in the pan like voice assistants many years ago?
- Can tech companies combine genitive AI with voice assistants to make them closer to what users expect from AI?
- Should Microsoft resurrect Cortana as a front-end, anthropomorphized version of its genitive AI language models?
The first question is too early to answer. Still, I believe this differs significantly from voice assistants, and generative AI can be considered a significant advancement for those applications.
There is little doubt that Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Apple will pursue question two. After all, anything to make voice assistants useful is warranted, and generative AI seems like one key to that puzzle.
Regarding bringing back Cortana, there is a lot of disagreement there as making AI “too personal” can present risks, too. Windows Central’s Ben Wilson recently outlined some questions around this, including if Cortana should return (‘Prometheus,’ the name of Microsoft’s unique language model, sounds too fearsome).
And let's all forget that former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer wanted to call Cortana 'Bingo.'
The bottom line is that we’re closer to believable (and helpful) AI than last year, which is quite exciting. Where Microsoft goes with all of this will be a fascinating story.
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Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.