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February 2, 2015

Cortana: artificial intelligence made more human

Cortana, your personal digital assistant on Windows Phone 8.1, evolved from a super-smart AI character in the Halo video-game series. How did she change to become your virtual guide into the Windows Phone universe?

cortana world

Even if you’re not a gamer, you’re probably familiar with Halo.

The science-fiction first-person shooter game got its start near the dawn of the new millennium, and its compelling story line (interstellar war between humans and aliens) and heroic characters has become part of the gaming industry’s cultural DNA.


One of the most compelling Halo characters is Cortana, the AI all-seeing, right-hand “woman” to protagonist Master Chief John-117. A recent in-depth piece by Microsoft’s Stories team compares the Cortana of Halo lore to the Cortana on your Lumia smartphone or other Windows Phone device. 

“The beauty of Cortana is that she gets to be Virgil and guide you through this amazing universe,” said Frank O’Connor in the Stories piece. He’s franchise development director at 343 Industries, which manages the Halo series.

“She gets to be a narrator, an expositor of information, and she also has-in some ways—more personality and dialogue than the Chief. She knows more about the universe than you do. She is literally inside your head.”

In a similar vein, that’s what the Windows Phone version of Cortana does—albeit with a personality that’s wittier and more confident than the Halo version, according to Susan Hendrich, principal program manager lead for Windows Phone.

“We dialed up a couple of her personality traits,” she said in the Stories piece. “The worst thing we could do is create a personality that’s watered down.”

As the Halo series progresses, Cortana becomes more complex and perhaps even more human than the human characters. Likewise, the more people use Cortana on their Lumia or other Windows Phone device, the smarter, more personal, and indispensible she becomes.

Cortana images

Read the Microsoft’s Stories piece here to get the full low-down. What do you think of the Stories piece? As the availability of Cortana increases worldwide via Windows Phone 8.1 and Lumia Denim, how has she helped you?