Microsoft is dead set on making Cortana a key feature in its Windows operating system(Windows 10 mobile and desktop environments). Like the symbiosis between a coral reef and a clown fish Cortana’s success is dependent on the adapting of the other vital player within the Post-PC “ecosystem”. Us.
One thing to remember about the “gimmicky” stuff like speaking Klingon, rolling dice, singing, telling jokes, game references and other things that Cortana is keen to do is that the “system” needs to be trained.
I placed “system” in quotes because I am not referring only to the computer system that is Cortana, but also to the larger “system” which includes both a population of human users and the digital assistant. We human beings who (ideally) will increasingly be engaging Cortana, an Artificially Intelligent Digital assistant, in daily life likely pose the greatest challenge in this equation.
At these very early stages (about 3 years in since Siri’s debut), we humans are still uncomfortable engaging a voice assistant in some contexts. Public engagement (i.e. grocery stores and public transit, etc.) is likely very limited. Even around small groups of friends and family we may be somewhat reluctant to talk to our digital assistants.
Engaging via voice, (which is a very human thing to do), a non-human “entity” within everyday day life “feels” unnatural. So if this new method of engaging our highly mobile computers (that’s what our smart phones are) is going to become the norm, which tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple and others are betting on there needs to be a paradigm shift where we perceive such engagement as normal, or at the very least socially acceptable.
For that to occur the first barrier to overcome are our own personal reservations, our feelings of discomfort, regarding engaging our voice assistants. We, though excited about the prospects of imaginative technology like KITT (Knight Rider) and HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey), feel self-conscious when talking to our phones around others (the current limits of the tech contribute to those feelings – not quite KITT yet).
Microsoft has taken on the task of “training the system.” Microsoft’s goal is to “train” us to “feel” comfortable talking to our devices, while we are alone and around others; while also to training others to perceive that people talking to their devices is socially acceptable. Microsoft has taken on this monumental task of trying to direct and influence the social etiquette around engaging a digital assistant in society and to develop in us new habits and perceptions about how we feel about engaging our devices.
Human beings are creatures of habit. The more we do something the more comfortable we become doing it. The more we see something, the more comfortable we become in accepting it within our environment. Thus via Cortana’s “Chit-Chat” function, where users are drawn into “conversations” with Cortana, one is allowed to engage the digital assistant with follow-up questions in relation to a previous question proposed to “her”. This frequency of engagement lends to a greater degree of comfort over time as new habits of engagement are formed and seen within a social context.
Microsoft’s implementing of a users ability to ask Cortana to sing songs, tell jokes; their reaching out to specific sub-groups like 10s of millions of Halo fans with game related questions, millions of trekkies with her ability to speak Klingon and more, draw us into speaking to “her” casually, with the reward of being reciprocated with responses not only that we’d likely get from a human we would be engaging in conversation but also in the manner a human might deliver that information in a light, humorous and/or friendly manner.
It is certainly not uncomfortable hearing the responses Cortana delivers. Actually it’s engaging. The responses can draw us in to ask more, engage further to see what else we can draw out of “her”. Hmmmm. Kind of like we do real people. We often probe a bit deeper when we find a conversation with a person engaging. We reach to see what else can be drawn out.
A derivative effect of our enjoying our engagement with Cortana is then to show others what she can do. Thus widening the breadth of the interaction. Bringing the engagement into a social forum. It will take time. But as Microsoft continues to imbue Cortana with engaging, some would call “gimmicks”, they are building the societal infrastructure, changing human behavior, developing new habits all directing us to become more comfortable talking to Cortana wherever we are.
These consistent interactions, via the again some say gimmicky tools, allows the computer side of the system to be frequently engaged, “trained”, accumulating voice data, location data, metrics about what type of interactions take place, when, where, what time of day etc., thus improving the capacity and capabilities of the system.
Now of course it’s not all fun and games. Cortana is very useful now with providing time, location and people based reminders, setting quiet hours, sending text messages, curating interests, tracking flights, providing localized concert and app suggestions, proactive traffic data, learning about the user and more. As she gains more abilities like the imminent arrival of Active Listening(with the wide spread release of Lumia Denim), her efficiency will only grow.
One final note. Microsoft wants the world to know about their digital assistant. It is the Redmond based companies intent that she will be targeted at the 1.5 billion install base of Microsoft’s PC market. The phone debuted her, but the goal is to integrate her with their PC OS (Windows 10) as well. This will allow Microsoft to reach the mainstream electronics consumer audience where they are, most of whom have PC’s (few of us don’t). This is paramount. Tactics like attaching her to the Bing Prediction Engine and using her to predict the World Cup, NFL Games and most recently the very popular ABC program Dancing With the Stars have provided and continues to provide a venue to garner the attention of 10s of millions of people who enjoy those entertainment venues.
By the time Cortana reaches the PC in 2015 she will have achieved important mindshare which Microsoft will be able to capitalize on as she becomes accessible to 100’s of millions of PC users prepped to use her on traditional PC’s, laptops, Windows tablet’s, hybrid’s, and 2-in-1’s all of which will be unified by the form factor agnostic Windows 10 OS. With the onslaught of OEMs releasing and set to release low cost Windows computers(of various forms) and phones, this holiday season and beyond, Microsoft’s foundational efforts to shape user engagement and social etiquette of their Post-PC user interface, Cortana, will be rewarded as she becomes available to over 1 billion Windows users in one fell swoop.