Microsoft finally explained why you should care about its virtual personal assistant

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is ramping up the company’s conversational smarts.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is ramping up the company’s conversational smarts.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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Microsoft is doubling down on Cortana, its virtual personal assistant, as a crucial sidekick at work, CEO Satya Nadella showcased at a keynote event in Seattle today.

Inside Windows 10 and on mobile devices, Microsoft is building out Cortana to specialize in longer conversations about calendar invites and other business ephemera. A promotional video shown onstage featured Cortana and a human user engaging in more than 30 back-and-forth responses.

The tasks included typical office logistics that tend to bog people down: rescheduling meetings, finding open conference rooms, and checking whether people had been added to a calendar invite (and adding them if not). While Cortana can do some of these things now, the current experience is more oriented toward one-off requests, rather than collaborative conversation.

Microsoft credits some of these advances to its 2018 acquisition of Semantic Machines, a company that specializes in natural-language processing.

Cortana currently lives in more than 700 million Windows 10 devices, as well as iPhone and Android smartphone apps. Since its launch in 2014, Cortana has served as a general voice assistant, able to search the web for mundane info like the weather. But in the past few years, Microsoft has started to integrate the assistant into its Outlook email application. Now Cortana can identify from an email when a person said they would take on a task, and then create reminders to help them follow through.

The voice-assistant market, dominated by Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple, is starting to shift from retrieving information to actually accomplishing meaningful tasks. Early on, Apple allowed developers to have its assistant, Siri, take some limited actions on behalf of users, but those use cases haven’t progressed further than ordering an Uber or playing a song.

A 2017 study found that most people with smart speakers (and the virtual assistants therein) only use them for a handful of tasks. The most common were playing music, asking general questions, setting alarms, and checking the weather. 

Microsoft has spent the past five years doubling down on its roots as an enterprise company under Nadella, who took over in 2014. Much of that work has been regrouping on initiatives that Microsoft seemingly jumped into because they were popular. Nadella shut down Microsoft’s mobile business shortly after becoming CEO and has started to ship Microsoft Office to Apple products. Virtual assistants were all the rage after Apple debuted Siri, but it’s taken five years for Microsoft to find the best way to merge virtual assistants with its existing businesses.

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