Microsoft is launching a new cadre of features for its search site Bing and virtual personal assistant Cortana, the company announced at a San Francisco event today.
The new features are part of Microsoft’s effort to become an “AI-first” company, meaning you’ll want to buy or use Microsoft products because they’re more customized, intuitive, or powerful due to the AI behind them. In search and virtual personal assistants, Microsoft needs the differentiating tech. It trails Google by more than 75 points in market share, sitting at 5.6%, and hasn’t garnered much attention for Cortana in the smart assistant space.
Bing’s new functionality is all about taking the information that the search engine surfaces and either making it more understandable or actionable. For example, Bing will lay out opposing sides of an argument, or translate numbers like square mileage into terms that are easier to understand.
If a user were to search the number of calories in a scoop of ice cream, Bing would return the number of calories and then how many minutes of running it would take to burn those calories. Microsoft calls the technology behind the feature a “perspective engine.” Bing would make a similar comparison if asked the size of a country or state.
This feature could be contentious, as Google tried to build a similar feature into its Maps app that translated the distance of walking directions into calories burned. After backlash on Twitter from users who said the calculation of calories burned was unscientific and could shame or upset people with eating disorders, Google quickly killed the feature.
Image search is also being revamped, with the ability to zoom into particular parts of images and search for other images similar to the selected portion.
When asked how these new features will be safeguarded against misinformation, propaganda, or harassment, Microsoft responded saying it will use the same tools already in use for Bing.
The last time we wrote about Cortana, we dinged the virtual personal assistant for not being too useful. Plus, at the time, it couldn’t integrate well with Gmail or Google Calendar. It looks like both those things will change.
Microsoft announced that its personal virtual assistant will now be able to manage Google’s calendar and Gmail accounts, as well as read and send emails via voice.
The personal assistant is also going to start automatically suggesting skills. Dave Forstrom, a Microsoft spokesperson, tells Quartz that Cortana will begin to suggest skills to chain together. For instance, if you order some concert tickets using Ticketmaster, the bot will ask if you want to add it to your calendar. Understanding context and suggesting actions could be an important differentiator for Cortana; it’s something that Siri and Alexa can’t do, though Google Assistant does have the ability to chain multiple actions on one command.