At today’s Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC), Microsoft showed off two ways that Cortana, its smart digital assistant, is going to infiltrate your workplace.
If you haven’t tried it yet, Cortana is a lot like Apple’s Siri, but named and patterened after Master Chief’s holographic sidekick from the Halo games.
The key difference between the two is that where Siri is mostly reactive — ask a question, get an answer — Microsoft has put a lot of energy into making Cortana anticipate your questions by way of “machine learning,” the industry’s buzzword for software that gets smarter over time.
“Cortana is emblematic of our personification of intelligence,” says Microsoft Corporate VP of Information Management and Machine Learning Joseph Sirosh.
On Windows 10 computers and Windows Phone (and eventually iPhone and Android), Cortana suggests news and other content based on your preferences, in addition to the usual voice commands you’d expect. It’s a little bit like Android’s Google Now, but with a lot more personality.
Just recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that the company’s new focus is squarely on productivity.
To get there, Microsoft is taking Cortana and putting her to work as the frontwoman and the first point of contact between you and your ever-growing mounds of data.
At WPC, Microsoft showed off GigJam, a new app that’s easier to show than to tell .
Basically, you use Cortana to ask for information — like “Hey Cortana, where are the latest sales reports?” Cortana will learn what data you mean by sifting through your apps, Microsoft promises.
Then, you can share pieces of the content with other people, drawing circles around the bits you want to share and slashing through the stuff you don’t. Microsoft says that it cuts out a lot of the pain of emailing screenshots and copied text back and forth.
There’s a video on Microsoft’s blog showing off how this will all work. There’s no release date, but you can apply to be in the closed beta.
Cortana Analytics Suite
On the more nerdy side of affairs is Cortana Analytics Suite.
Internally, Microsoft has been using machine learning to power fraud detection on the Xbox marketplace, Sirosh says — if its learning algorithms pick up a transaction that it thinks is questionable, based on past experience, it immediately shuts it down and flags it for a human investigator.
Similarly, Bing puts machine learning to work to rank search results. In fact, Microsoft has been so impressed with its machine learning tools, it’s even put them to work internally to forecast financial data like sales and revenue goals.
The secret ingredient is in the data — “the most precious natural resource of our time,” Sirosh says. The more data Microsoft (and you, the customer) feeds Cortana, the more impresive she is.
And now, Microsoft is packaging up that technology into the Cortana Analytics Suite — the same crazy maths under the hood, but with the Cortana interface built in — so that developers can build all this good stuff into their own applications.
For programmers, Cortana Analytics Suite is a way for them to get access to predictive analytics for their own apps.
For the people actually using those apps, Cortana is a natural way to communicate and work with that data.
So in addition to the voice commands (and the attendant attitude), Cortana’s recommendation engines can also be used to flag and notify users of anything the algorithms pick up on. Meanwhile, it can take basic, automatic actions.
Sirosh suggests a usage for this kind of technology in healthcare, where a developer could make an app that automatically picks up on when a patient is late to pick up their medicine and robocall them with instructions for what to do if they miss a dose, even as it alerts a doctor.
“It’s significantly more accurate than what a human can do,” Sirosh says.
By doing all the “rote work,” Sirosh says, Microsoft’s machine learning technology can move faster and with a lower error rate “without a human in the middle.”
So yes, Cortana is going to get put to work, in more ways than one.
Just don’t worry about her stealing your job — Sirosh suggests that you’ll just be able to refocus your efforts elsewhere now that you don’t have to do the tedious, manual data-sorting jobs.
“Planes came and we don’t need horse-drawn carriages anymore,” Sirosh says.
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