With an amazing demo, Microsoft lays out the future of Cortana

Microsoft piques our interest with its vision for the future of Cortana

A closer look at the new Cortana
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Microsoft’s Cortana has so far trailed behind the success of Alexa and Google Assistant, but that was the old Cortana. This week, Microsoft unveiled the new Cortana – Cortana Phase 2, if you like – a smarter, more helpful and more conversational assistant. Put simply, it promises to be the assistant we've long been asking for.

In a short trailer at Microsoft's Build conference, we saw a conversation between a user and Cortana playing out, with the assistant shifting calendar appointments, recalling co-worker names and even sending directions to the car.

Despite the video being (most likely) heavily edited, the demo played out like one of those impressive unbroken movie long takes, and that was the point: Microsoft was showing us a Cortana with the contextual stamina to hold a multi-turn conversation over several minutes, without the user having to nudge it with another “Hey Cortana” or speak in isolated commands.

Some of these things – making calendar appointments, checking the weather forecast – Cortana can do today, but now everything is more fluid; Cortana processes multiple queries at once, understanding “umms” and “hmms” and variations in sentence structure. It was, quite simply, the assistant experience we’ve always wanted. That is, if this is at all reflective of what the user experience will be. While we don't yet know when this will be "rolled out" to the public, Microsoft is also making its conversational AI available for developers to build into their own bots.

Read this: Your essential guide to Cortana on Windows 10

A lot of these improvements are the work of a company called Semantic Machines, which Microsoft acquired last year. Semantic Machines has inflated Cortana's IQ with better context, something smart assistants often struggle with.

Despite numerous advances to Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri, conversations with these assistants are still brittle. Has Microsoft broken through to the truly "conversational" AI we've longed for?

Microsoft wows us with Cortana demo - but is it enough?

Boosting the IQ

Microsoft also showed off a cone-shaped smart speaker, but before you get excited, this is a developer device with 360-degree microphones and a 360-degree camera, designed so it – for example – might recognise every person present in a conference room.

I think connecting Cortana to intelligence rather than just voice is a smart move

In fact, Microsoft is positioning Cortana primarily as a co-worker. On stage, Satya Nadella made it clear that Microsoft doesn't see Cortana as a competitor to Alexa and the gang, but a complement. For example, Alexa already exists on Windows 10 and, as of a new update this week, is completely hands-free – meaning you can treat your PC like you would an Echo speaker.

“We need a multi-agent world,” said Nadella on stage. “The idea that you’re always going to start with one wake word and one assistant is just not like how we start on the web, for example,” he said. “What does an open assistant future look like? Similar to an open web. That’s what we want to really ensure happens when it comes to the personal assistant.”

And perhaps it’s that division of labour that will allow Cortana to thrive in the future. Alexa and Google Assistant rule the home, while Cortana takes the role of our co-worker.

“I think connecting Cortana to intelligence rather than just voice is a smart move,” Carolina Milanesi, tech analyst at Creative Strategies, told The Ambient. “I think the biggest opportunity from a consumer perspective is to be the link between work and play or the bridge between work and home. On top of that there is also an opportunity to help organise our homes linking to apps like mail and calendar.”

Milanesi believes that if Microsoft can get conversational AI right before Google, Apple and Amazon, it could give it the edge it needs – particularly with rumours of earbuds and other potential Cortana-carrying devices poised to inject Microsoft's assistant into our lives. “I do think if Cortana gets conversational AI right before the competition it will be a great appeal for users.”

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