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June 11, 2014

The Real Brains Behind Cortana

By now, you’ve been introduced to Cortana, your new, intelligent personal assistant.

She can remind you to pick up milk the next time you’re at the market. She can suggest that you take along an umbrella if rain is forecasted. And if your boss is trying to get hold of you in the middle of a crucial meeting, she can text him that you’re busy and can’t be disturbed. Ace.

Marcus Ash

She’s your Girl Friday, your gatekeeper, your mobile brain. Two years in the making and modelled on real-life PAs (personal assistants), Cortana is part of the Windows Phone 8.1 update coming to every Lumia smartphone running Windows Phone 8.

The brains behind Cortana – scientists, software engineers, writers, and other integral folks – are led in part by Marcus Ash, Microsoft’s Partner Group manager for Cortana. I recently had a chat with him to learn more about how this quirky, confident and whip-smart digital PA came to life.

Proactive and Personable

“We had this wacky idea; what if you had an assistant embedded in your phone?” Marcus said on the origins of Cortana. “So we talked to human beings whose jobs it was to support others and make them more productive.”

What his colleagues learned after interviewing a number of PAs: the job is not for the faint of heart. These assistants had to log reams of key information, including project deadlines and travel plans, to keep their bosses on a smooth trajectory. The PAs had to anticipate what they needed and guide them through their workdays.

“We didn’t want just to create a voice-command system,” he said. “A true virtual assistant has to do things proactively. It has to have a sense of what I want to do. That’s a big differentiator.”

My Cortana does. For example, she noticed that I have an upcoming flight to Washington, D.C. Without me prompting, she asked me if I wanted her to track the flight. Why yes, Cortana, thank you. By the way, the concept of “me” is important. Cortana is customized for each individual, Marcus said, so the way she helps you may be different from the way she helps me.

A PA also has to be trustworthy. As a result, Cortana always asks if it’s OK for her to remember the information you give her. She won’t keep any information that you don’t want her to.

But just as important in building trust is making Cortana seem less like a computerized robot and more like her flesh-and-blood counterparts. So you can “chitchat” with Cortana. The fact that she’s voiced by Jen Taylor, the actress who plays the artificially intelligent Cortana in the Halo video game series doesn’t hurt, either.

You could ask her to tell you a joke (“Why did the hipster burn his mouth on coffee? Because he drank it before it was cool.”) Or even pose personal questions, such as “Do you sleep?” and “Do you love me?”


Here’s where Cortana can get cheeky. Marcus described her personality as “confident, charming, witty, fun, loyal, conscientious.” In answer to the first question, she said, “I never sleep. Sleep is for laptops.” I smiled in amusement.

In answer to the second, Cortana said, “I’ll need quite a few upgrades before I can give you a heartfelt answer.” I laughed.

“We didn’t want to create a cold interface,” Marcus added. “Personality is one of the biggest things you have so people are willing to share things with you.”

Challenges and Looking Ahead
One of the big trials in developing Cortana, which is infused with intense machine-learning algorithms – is that there wasn’t much data for her to play with at first. But the more data Cortana gathers from all the people who use her, the smarter she gets, he said.

A second big challenge was figuring out how to make a complicated, multi-layered system easy enough for anybody to use. The focus should not be on the technology; it is simply a means to an end. “People don’t want complexity,” he added. “They want something that works.”

Right now, Cortana is in beta version and available for developers only. She’ll first be available to U.S customers but, in the coming months, she’ll be rolled out to China and the United Kingdom, and then other countries.

Before Microsoft does so, Marcus and his team are analyzing how people are using Cortana and seeking ways to make her better.

“As we launch Cortana into more devices and into more markets, we’ll make decisions on how to enhance the feature set,” Marcus said. “It will be a very data-driven process.”

In the future, Cortana will be just one element of a customized tech ecosystem that revolves around you, Marcus said. Wearable devices, personal computers, even automobiles – they know a lot about you. So they should also help you optimize your life, such as by carving out family time and helping you stay in touch with people you care about.

“Human-centric computing is something we’ve focused on at Microsoft, and Cortana is an important part of that,” he said. “We’re developing technologies that can make a real difference in people’s lives.”