Cortana has a new boss, and he has a problem: If Google’s turning its Google Now digital assistant into a chatbot, should Microsoft do the same with Cortana?
So far, the answer is a definite maybe.
In 2014, Microsoft first unveiled Cortana, the digital assistant within Windows 10. Interacting with Cortana was simple: You asked a question, she responded. In the last few months, however, Google’s Assistant has offered an alternative: a chatbot that interacts with users via an ongoing stream of text and images.
As of Thursday, Cortana's future lies in the hands of Harry Shum, the executive vice president in charge of Microsoft’s new Microsoft AI and Research Group . In an interview with PCWorld, Shum said he hasn’t ruled out adding a Cortana chatbot to its roster of digital assistants. Shum said Microsoft is also trying to figure out whether to port a successful Asian chatbot, known as XiaoIce, to the American market—while avoiding a repeat of its last, disastrous chatbot initiative, Tay.ai.
Navigating those waters won’t be easy, and Shum played it safe when asked what Microsoft’s plans were for chatbots.“I want to emphasize the complexity and difficulty of this type of product,” Shum cautioned. “I think it’s still early.”
Mark Hachman With the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, you can access basic Cortana functions on your lock screen. But unlike a chatbot, there’s no history of your interactions.
Cortana 2.0: Chatbot or assistant?
According to Shum, Cortana was originally designed to quickly interact with the user, then get out of the way. “I would say Cortana is designed to help people complete a task, whether it be a reminder that they should buy something for mom’s birthday or that they should leave for home because the traffic is jammed,” Shum said.
Over 133 million people have used Cortana, asking a total of one billion questions of the digital assistant. Given Microsoft’s recent statement that 400 billion devices run Windows 10, and by extension, Cortana, that means less than half of Windows 10 users have never used her. (Shum said Microsoft believes that Cortana’s usage “compares well” with other assistants on the market.)
In the meantime, Google debuted its Assistant chatbot —currently part of its Allo app, but eventually expected to break out and replace Google Now within Android. Assistant suggests topics for users to interact with, such as quizzes and games, and it suggests follow-up topics to continue the conversation. It also keeps a running tally of the conversation, allowing a user to scroll back and continue it from an earlier point in the conversation. Cortana lacks all of these features.
Right now, there’s no reason to believe that Microsoft will rip out the familiar Cortana icon on Windows 10 PCs and phones and replace it with a scrolling window of text messages. Still, chatbots, with their back-and-forth exchanges, could significantly boost engagement, Shum acknowledged. “When you design a different kind of agent like a chatbot, the amount of user interaction is significantly higher and different,” Shum said.