It seems odd to refer to smartphone software as a "she," but that human element is exactlywhat Microsoft is after with its new Windows Phone digital assistant. Cortana, named after her fictional counterpart in the video game series Halo, takes notes, dictates messages and offers up calendar alerts and reminders. But her real standout characteristic, and the one Microsoft's betting heavily on, is the ability to strike up casual conversations with users; what Microsoft calls "chitchat." Next to Apple's Siri, Cortana is the only other smartphone assistant to come with a baked-in personality. And it's hard not to see the parallels between Cortana and the affable, Scarlett Johansson-voiced AI in Spike Jonze's film Her.
Confident, caring, competent, loyal; helpful, but not bossy: These are just some of the words Susan Hendrich, the project manager in charge of overseeing Cortana's personality, used to describe the program's most significant character traits. "She's eager to learn and can be downright funny, peppering her answers with banter or a comeback," Hendrich said. "She seeks familiarity, but her job is to be a personal assistant." With that kind of list, it sure sounds like Hendrich's describing a human. Which is precisely what she and her team set out to do during Cortana's development; create an AI with human-like qualities.
Microsoft's decision to infuse Cortana with a personality stemmed from one end goal: user attachment. "We did some research and found that people are more likely to interact with [AI] when it feels more human," said Hendrich. To illustrate that desired human-machine dynamic, Hendrich pointed to her grandmother's experience with a Roomba vacuum: "She gave a name and a personality to an inanimate object, and it brought her joy." That sense of familiarity is exactly what Microsoft wants Window Phone users to feel when interacting with Cortana on their own devices.
Because the bulk of Cortana's primary functions mirror that of a personal assistant (e.g., make calls, set appointment reminders, etc.), the team decided to take the development process even further and add an extra layer of authenticity. To that end, they interviewed real-life assistants to learn what that job actually entails, and what attributes they exhibit; how they interact with their bosses and what makes them successful. "[It] helped us understand how humans take on that role [of a personal assistant]," Hendrich said. These interviews were also captured on video, a resource the team uses to this day as a reference point for any new situations that may arise.
Beyond relating to users in a naturalistic way, Microsoft realized that Cortana also needed to be fun. In fact, the company's research shows that around 40 percent of all AI interactions involve chitchat. As Hendrich explained: "If you had a personal assistant and you walked into the office, you'd engage in chitchat with them first. You don't go straight into the highest-priority emails and lay out your day."
"Chitchat" with Cortana can range from witty banter to casual chatter. Ask her to tell you a joke and she could reply with this: "Two antennas got married. The ceremony dragged on, but the reception was excellent." If you ask her how old she is, she'll say, "I'm not sure how to carbon date the internet." Microsoft's even snuck in an Easter egg related to Clippy, the helpful, animated paper clip from its Word software. Although these playful responses may strike some as nothing more than cheap tricks on Microsoft's part, they do help users build a rapport with Cortana. If she can make you laugh or smile, you're more likely to continue using the program again and again. At least, that's what Microsoft hopes will happen.
If Cortana sounds familiar, that's because she's partially voiced by Jen Taylor, the original talent behind Halo's Cortana. Microsoft currently synthesizes multiple voices for the program, but Taylor's lines account for a huge percentage of the chitchat you hear, and that amount is only going to increase over time. Though Cortana's current voice doesn't sound quite as natural as say that of Samantha's in Her, the addition of Taylor's human tone does help imbue the program with a more realistic feel.
Read more: http://www.engadget.com/2014/06/04/cortana-microsoft-windows-phone/