“Alexa,” I said, speaking to the Amazon Echo Dot in my office, “Open Cortana.” The device’s blue ring lit up and spun while I waited for some kind of error message.
Instead, Alexa, the Amazon digital assistant said, “Currently, you can talk to Cortana on any Windows 10 device. Later this year, you’ll be able to talk directly through me by saying ‘Open Cortana.’”
So I asked Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana a similar question on my Windows 10 workstation. I got a similar reply. Clearly, while the connection between Alexa and Cortana isn’t there yet, it’s on its way.
When it starts working, the connection between Alexa and Cortana will be a little clunky. You’ll have to tell each assistant to open the other. There won’t be any actual collaboration or any combination of shared functions. All you’ll really be able to do at least initially to access each digital assistant through the other’s interface.
This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that it’s not the full integration that you’re likely to see in a year or so. But you’ll still be able to get Cortana to look up your appointments on your Outlook calendar via your Amazon Echo device, which is something you can’t do now.
You’ll also be able to ask Alexa to order items from Amazon by just speaking to Cortana, and you can do things such as turning on your sprinklers or the lights in your home the in the same way, all while sitting at your desk at work.
Of course, some of this, such as ordering items from Amazon, you can do now fairly easily now by just going to the Amazon website. But other items require an Amazon Echo device, such as when you want to turn on lights at home. You can do a lot of other things with Alexa on an Amazon Echo, but you can’t get it to read your Outlook email. For that you need Cortana and being able to accomplish that with your Echo device makes it much more useful.
There is some overlap between these assistants and their devices. For example, you can play music using Cortana, although the results may be surprising or ineffective. You can also handle your calendar entries using your Echo and Alexa, which works if you have Google Calendar, but nowhere else.
The real future of this cooperation is yet to come. While you will be able to load each assistant from the other’s device, the real power in this collaboration will come when each assistant will invoke the other’s capabilities as needed. The next step would be for each device to look at query it receives and decide which device is best suited to handling it.
Ideally, such collaboration between devices should be seamless. So when you ask a question or make a request, it will simply happen. Thus, when you ask Cortana to change the shade of your lights to purple, the request will be passed along to Alexa, which will change the hue of the lights and report back. From your viewpoint, it will simply happen.
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.