Exclusive: Microsoft's digital assistant to head to Android, Apple devices

Fri Mar 13, 2015 11:50am EDT
 
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By Bill Rigby

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Microsoft is working on an advanced version of its competitor to Apple's Siri, using research from an artificial intelligence project called "Einstein."

    Microsoft has been running its "personal assistant" Cortana on its Windows phones for a year, and will put the new version on the desktop with the arrival of Windows 10 this autumn. Later, Cortana will be available as a standalone app, usable on phones and tablets powered by Apple Inc's (AAPL.O: Quote) iOS and Google Inc's (GOOG.O: Quote) Android, people familiar with the project said.

    "This kind of technology, which can read and understand email, will play a central role in the next roll out of Cortana, which we are working on now for the fall time frame," said Eric Horvitz, managing director of Microsoft Research and a part of the Einstein project, in an interview at the company's Redmond, Washington, headquarters. Horvitz and Microsoft declined comment on any plan to take Cortana beyond Windows.

    The plan to put Cortana on machines running software from rivals such as Apple and Google, as well as the Einstein project, have not been reported. Cortana is the name of an artificial intelligence character in the video game series "Halo."

    They represent a new front in CEO Satya Nadella's battle to sell Microsoft software on any device or platform, rather than trying to force customers to use Windows. Success on rivals' platforms could create new markets and greater relevance for the company best known for its decades-old operating system.

    The concept of 'artificial intelligence' is broad, and mobile phones and computers already show dexterity with spoken language and sifting through emails for data, for instance.

    Still, Microsoft believes its work on speech recognition, search and machine learning will let it transform its digital assistant into the first intelligent 'agent' which anticipates users needs. By comparison, Siri is advertised mostly as responding to requests. Google's mobile app, which doesn’t have a name like Siri or Cortana, already offers some limited predictive information 'cards' based on what it thinks the user wants to know.

    Microsoft has tried to create digital assistants before, without success. Microsoft Bob, released in 1995, was supposed to make using a computer easy, but ended up being the butt of jokes. The Office Assistant nicknamed 'Clippy' suffered a similar fate a few years later.   Continued...

 
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaks at the Future Decoded conference in London November 10, 2014.     REUTERS/Kevin Coombs