Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Meet my new Personal Assistant

Jen Taylor, who voice powers Cortana
Meet Cortana, my new personal Assistant.  Cortana is simply an Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered software which takes its name from Cortana, an AI character from Microsoft’s Halo Series of Games.  The Software, a voice enabled personal digital assistant, integrated with the Bing Search in the Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1 series, learns and adapts by tracking your phone and its usage. 

Cortana is much more than a voice search that Bing provides and she is programmed like a real-life personal assistant.  Cortana is Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google Now.  She is voice-powered by Jen Taylor, the same voice actress that powered Cortana in the various Halo Games. 

Cortana Start Screen
Like Siri and Google, Cortana can take notes, dictate message can set alarms and throws up reminders and alerts and can do web searches and manipulate system settings as you dictate her.  But what really sets Cortana apart is its endless ability to strike up casual conversations with users, which can at times be quite funny and sassy.  We (Me and two of my colleagues, who own an iPhone and a Google Nexus) did do a reality check, command by command between the three voice assistants, and I am proud to say, at the end of the test that Cortana did hold herself against Siri and Google in a remarkable fashion and my colleagues too were quite impressed by her abilities. 

Sample some of the “Chit Chats” that Cortana was subjected and her replies thereon:-

Cortana's Reply to 'Who are you?'


I ask                       : Who are you?
Cortana               :In short, I am your personal Assistant, I try to make things easier to do on your Phone. 

I ask                       : Set an alarm tomorrow at 9! 
Cortana               :Your 9.00 am alarm is now on!

I ask                       : Cancel my Alarm!
Cortana               :Tap the alarm you want to turn off.
(Cortana is contextual, and it threw up the list of alarms so that I can cancel one)

I ask                       : Who is your daddy?
Cortana               :Technically speaking, that’d be Bill Gates, No Big deal! 

I ask                       : Can you Dance?
Cortana               :I am still practicing my moves.  Check back after Beta.

I ask                       : I am Lonely!
Cortana               :Keep talking to me then, Chief! 

I ask                       : I am bored!
Cortana               :Ask me more questions then!

I ask                       : I am tired!
Cortana               :I’ll set a nap alarm if you tell me when to wake up. 

I ask                       : Tell me a joke!
Cortana               :Two antennas got married The ceremony dragged on but the reception was excellent!
(if you ask cortana certain questions over and over again, she comes up with a different answer, like this one above)

I ask                       : Facebook, what’s up with Antony?
(Cortana initiates a report of ‘Antony’s’ recent facebook activity. 

Cortana can link your reminder to a place (location based) or a person (people based) and cortana will pop up with a reminder, the moment you reach the particular location or when the person calls you. Sample this :-
 
I say : The next time I talk to ‘Mom’, remind me to ask her about what medicines she want
Cortana identified ‘Mom’ with the ‘Surname’ I had saved against her phone no, and when she called, reminded me with the text “ask her about what medicines she want”. 

In all, Cortana is a very very useful digital personal assistant to have on your smartphone.  In the head to head comparison, Cortana fared better on most occassions with Siri coming close to acknowledging our voice commands.  Google Now was merely a Voice search and nothing more and never came back with any AI.   


One drawback which Cortana had, was that while Google Now could be activated through pure voice command (only in flagship and high-end Android Phones though), Siri and Cortana needed manual intervention and is not completely hands free. One needs to use one’s hands to 'turn her on'.   

In the People based reminder example I listed above, all three Voice Assistants were particular about the phraseology and if I had pronounced the sentence with words in a different order, the command were not recognised.  But I believe, this is something that will evolve over time as more AI would come to these softwares. 


While Cortana is still in its Beta and is only months old, Siri and Google Now has been in the market for almost two years now , but still Cortana holds its fort against its formidable rivals.  If Cortana is awesome this much now, I can only wait for the day when she comes out of her Beta and become fully functional.  Wow! That’d indeed give Apple and Google a run for their money. 

Courtesy : Windows Phone 8.1 Help Site provided me these ideas as to what questions I should ask Cortana.  And I am still subjecting Cortana to more questions. So watch this space for more exciting conversations...

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