In a way, this sounds like the computers that science fiction writers have been writing about for decades, such as Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL 9000 or Isaac Asimov’s Galactic AC. You simply ask the device for the answer to a question, and the device responds. Usually, such answers involve queries to an array of cloud– based data and other resources. The type of answer depends now on which device you ask and what data the device can access.
For example, when I asked both Alexa and Cortana the question posed in Asimov’s “The Last Question,” that it took Galactic AC eons to answer, Alexa gave me a similar answer, which is that it didn’t know. But Cortana did, and provided an answer to the reversal of entropy.
While it’s unlikely that we will be trying to answer such questions in our day to day activities, the important point is that by combining the assistants' capabilities will be able to ask questions that require a search by Alexa and you’ll be able to find music by asking Cortana.
The real payoff with the merging of the capabilities is that both devices will become far more useful and you won’t have to waste time trying to figure out which assistant is best able to answer your question or fulfill your request.
For now though, you’ll still have to figure out which assistant is more likely to provide a useful answer. I spent some time today seeing exactly how that might work by placing my Echo Dot on the desk next to my Windows 10 computer. I asked each one the same questions to decide which had an actual answer.
Most of the time, Cortana’s ability to use voice commands to run a search engine won out, although I didn’t always get a voice response. But even when Cortana had to resort to simply displaying its findings on the screen, I got an answer. Alexa doesn’t really have the ability to search beyond specific types of questions such as sports scores.
“Voice and zero UI interactions are currently limited by the capabilities programmed into each model,” explained Stephanie Trunzo, chief digital officer and COO of PointSource, a digital transformation firm in prepared statement.
“Alexa enables a set of defined skills for specific use cases and Cortana is designed to be a voice interaction interface for findability and retrievability. Combining capabilities allows additive use case patterns. When the systems connect multi-variable flows, and enable learning and iteration, only then will we see the real power of cognitive intelligence in voice interface,” Trunzo wrote.
Of course, Microsoft and Amazon will have to add a lot more functionality, including access to a wide array of really big data sets and new ways to express the data in terms of voice analogs to data visualizations. Then voice enabled assistants will be able to move to another level of usefulness.
And perhaps we’ll find the answer to The Last Question soon enough to be useful.