Cortana is already one of Windows Phone 8.1's standout features, but an experiment in China may add a conversational twist to the company's Bing-powered answer to Siri.
In July, a social assistant called XiaoIce (little ice) was unleashed on Chinese social networks, including Touchpal and the 700-million-user microblogging site Weibo, according to Stefan Weitz, senior director of Microsoft Bing. Users then began adding XiaoIce as a friend on each respective network.
Last week, XiaoIce "became accessible by asking Cortana China, aka Xiao Na, to chat with her by customers using the Windows Phone 8.1 Preview for Developers," he said. The result is a context-aware, social-enabled digital assistant with a gift for gab.
XiaoIce is "much more evolved than the chatbots you might remember," Weitz said in a company blog post. "XiaoIce is a sophisticated conversationalist with a distinct personality. She can chime into a conversation with context-specific facts about things like celebrities, sports or finance, but she also has empathy and a sense of humor."
XiaoIce leverages sentiment analysis to "adapt her phrasing and responses based on positive or negative cues from her human counterparts," said Weitz. Conversations can reach "hundreds of exchanges in length," he added.
To achieve this, the Bing team had to overcome a major stumbling block, the Mandarin language itself.
"Chinese is a tricky language to programmatically write natural-sounding speech because it lacks many of the patterns computer scientists usually rely on," said Weitz. "Relative to other languages, meaning in Chinese is more often implied by nuance and context versus grammatical structure. To address this, the team indexed over 7 million public conversations happening on the Web."
The result is that "XiaoIce is a computer program who sounds human," he said. "XiaoIce is able to communicate a feeling of sensitivity and empathy, to make her a conversationalist." The software can pick up on a user's emotional cues and change its tone—from feisty to reserved, for example—to better simulate the ways people interact with one another.
So far, XiaoIce is a hit in China. "In the first 24 hours of the beta, XiaoIce was downloaded over 20,000 times resulting in over 200,000 simultaneous conversations happening in various chat groups," revealed Weitz. "XiaoIce has been ranked as Weibo's top influencer, and currently has over 850,000 followers on the service."
Critically, user engagement rates high. At the technology's peak, XiaoIce "was telling 35.4 jokes per second on Weibo," he stated. "The average person who adds XiaoIce talks to her more than 60 times per month."
This bodes well for a chattier, more human-like Cortana and perhaps other Microsoft offerings, hinted Weitz. "This experiment has yielded powerful insights on how we can make our technologies more intelligent, relevant and personal," he said. "You can expect to see some of these notions permeate our services in the coming months."