Microsoft Expects Cortana Voice Assistant to Get Smarter

Microsoft thinks its Cortana voice assistant tech is poised to do much more than search the Web and tidy up calendars. Someday it may be able to see.

Microsoft Cortana

Cortana can speak, listen, decipher text queries and get to know users, courtesy of Microsoft's search and machine-learning technologies. According to the software giant's research arm, the company has much bigger plans for Cortana.

Drawing parallels from the current state of Cortana to the simplistic, bare-bones experiences provided by early search engines, Microsoft Research Distinguished Engineer Larry Heck believes the "personal-assistant technology that's out there right now is comparable to the early days of search," according to a blog post. And like search, Cortana will evolve to have a profound impact on the tech industry.

"Microsoft has intentionally built Cortana to scale out to all the different domains," said Heck, reflecting on the company's "long-term vision" for the tech.

Currently, Cortana is strictly a voice- and text-driven affair. During a keynote demo at this year's Build developer conference in San Francisco, Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of Windows Phone, showed off Cortana's prowess at handling spoken commands and surfacing important in-context information from data sources like a user's inbox.

Only developers have access to Cortana for the time being, but the company is offering the general public a small taste of the tech. Bing users can configure the search engine to display new "cards" on a home page that reflect their interests, including customized news topics, weather and traffic alerts.

Heck's comments suggest that the company is planning to someday give Cortana the gift of sight. "The goal is to support all types of human interaction—whether it's speech, text, or gestures—across domains of information and function and make it as easy as a natural conversation," he added.

Microsoft has extensive experience with gesture-based computing. In late 2010, the company launched the Kinect motion controller for the Xbox 360 video game system. Not only was it a commercial success, but it also gained a big following among hardware hackers and developers.

Kinect enables users to manipulate on-screen elements by moving their hands and clenching their fists, for example, in front of the sensor. The software giant is banking on the tech, along with its massive Perceptive Pixel displays, to help usher in a new era of engaging, touch and gesture-based computing experiences that feel natural to users.

Cortana is emerging as another piece of that strategy.

"Over time, Heck wants Cortana to interact in an increasingly anticipatory, natural manner," said Microsoft in a statement. Building upon a design philosophy based on "state-of-the-art machine-learning and data-mining algorithms," Cortana's reach is poised to stretch beyond phone contacts, calendars and email inboxes. Microsoft asserts that developers and researchers can leverage its "broad assets across commercial and enterprise products, including strong ties to Bing Web search and Microsoft speech algorithms and data."

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...