Microsoft's "Cortana" Personal Assistant App Has a Lot to Live Up To

By Wesley Fenlon

Microsoft has been collecting and connecting data with Bing that will eventually power a personal assistant like Siri or Google Now.

A few months back, a leaked build of Windows Phone contained a test build of an app called Cortana. Microsoft may have made a mistake, naming the app, which is a prototype personal assistant--an eventual competitor to Apple's Siri and Google Now--Cortana. In Microsoft's Halo game series, Cortana is a sentient AI with an inhuman, virtually limitless depth of knowledge (and a very human personality, thanks to voice actor Jen Taylor). How could reality possibly compare? Getting Taylor to voice the app would be a start. And as for Cortana's intelligence, well, it sounds like Microsoft has some plans for that, too.

ZDNet writes that Cortana--still a codename, so who knows what the app will eventually be named--may not make its way into Windows Phone until 2014, or 2015, or even 2015. Microsoft recently told CNET that it wanted something revolutionary, not evolutionary, before it released its own personal assistant. That "revolution," it seems, will tie into how Cortana understands the world. More specifically, how things in the world relate to one another.

ZDNet writes that Cortana will "learn and adapt, relying on machine-learning technology and the 'Satori' knowledge repository powering Bing. Cortana will be more than just an app that lets users interact with their phones more naturally using voice commands. Cortana is core to the makeover of the entire 'shell' -- the core services and experience -- of the future versions of Windows Phone, Windows and the Xbox One operating systems, from what I've heard from my contacts."

That's a pretty big deal, and it's reflected in Ballmer's recent memo about Microsoft's reorganization, which ZDNet also quotes. Here's a key line: "Our shell will natively support all of our essential services, and will be great at responding seamlessly to what people ask for, and even anticipating what they need before they ask for it."

And where will Cortana get her smarts? Bing's knowledge graph-like Satori system, which Microsoft implemented earlier this year. Here's how that works.

Bing implemented Snapshots last year, which display direct information about celebrities, movies, and so on in the search sidebar. The system behind Snapshots is Satori. Bing's blog explains "The underlying technology for Snapshot is designed to develop deep understanding of the world around us not only as a collection of entities (people, places and things) but also the relationships between those entities. Inside the Bing engineering team, we call this technology Satori, which means understanding in Japanese. Over time, Satori will continue growing to encompass billions of entities and relationships, providing searchers with a more useful model of the digital and physical world."

Will interconnected knowledge of billions of things make Cortana a revolutionary personal assistant? Hard to say. But Jen Taylor's voice could, at least, make Cortana the first personal assistant that's a pleasure to listen to.