Microsoft is doubling down on Cortana as a virtual secretary, giving the digital assistant a host of new capabilities to help people manage their schedules and communications at the office throughout the day.
These new capabilities, unveiled today at Microsoft’s Ignite conference, represent the next step forward in the tech giant’s new approach to Cortana. Earlier this year, Microsoft gave up on Cortana as a consumer-focused rival to Amazon’s Alexa and pivoted to target the company’s bread and butter: the workplace. The company’s new mission is to make Cortana a top-notch voice-activated app that works with other digital assistants across a variety of devices, with an emphasis on productivity.
Here’s a look at the new features coming to Cortana, many of which are debuting in preview:
- Starting tomorrow, Cortana will be able to read emails out loud and note scheduling changes. Users can then reply to messages with voice commands.
- Cortana can send a daily briefing email that gives users a rundown of their meetings for the day, tasks they need to accomplish and more. Cortana can pull information from past conversations, such as specific things users promised to do, and make it easier to mark jobs as completed or book focus time to get finish them off.
- A new feature in preview called Scheduler allows Cortana to look at calendars, find or propose available times for meetings, and manage meeting details. Once everyone agrees on a time, Cortana can book a meeting room, add call-in details and send a calendar invite from the meeting organizer.
These new features fit with a vision for Cortana the company first showed earlier this year at its Build developer conference. Microsoft teased a more free-flowing conversation between a human and virtual assistant that went beyond the typical single command and response and included shuffling around a schedule and creating new meetings on the go.
Microsoft’s acquisition of “conversational AI” startup Semantic Machines last year is playing a significant role in the evolution of Cortana. Semantic Machines aims to advance the state of voice-based AI from understanding and responding to singular commands commands to having complete conversations. The company was built by accomplished startup entrepreneurs, a former chief speech scientist for Apple’s Siri and leading AI researchers and professors from Stanford and University of California at Berkeley.
Today’s digital assistants are limited in their capabilities and “aren’t focused on learning how to do new things, or mixing and matching the things they already know in order to support new contexts,” Semantic Machines Co-founder and Microsoft Technical Fellow Dan Klein wrote in a blog post in May. He added that Semantic Machines teaches virtual assistants about context so they can grow beyond simple questions and answers.
Microsoft is working with Amazon to integrate their respective digital assistants, and it’s worth watching to see how the evolution of Cortana will impact that relationship, or if Microsoft will continue down the path and pull off a similar deal with Google. Alexa is getting deep into the Microsoft ecosystem, as the digital assistant now works with mainstays like Skype and Xbox.
Under CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft hasn’t been afraid to de-emphasize areas that aren’t paying off, or make a major pivot to re-invigorate a stagnant product, and the company is in the midst of that with Cortana. In a Windows update earlier this year, Microsoft separated Cortana from search and add the option to mute it during setup.