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Why Cortana's new boss is obsessed with artificial intelligence

Mark Hachman | Oct. 11, 2016
"We are infusing AI technology into all Microsoft products," AI chief Harry Shum says, and he has plans for Cortana, too.

Again, I want to emphasize the complexity and difficulty of this type of product. I think it’s still early.

You’re now Cortana’s boss, so to speak. Can you compare Cortana’s strengths and weaknesses with Siri and Google Assistant?

I would say it’s great that we have those competing products in the market. I think nothing is more exciting than looking at the other great engineers, and what they’re building. 

I would say clearly we have the heritage from Bing, we understand the world’s knowledge, and what we can do there. And then we compare with other agents. We also understand about the users in different kinds of settings. So there’s old knowledge, as well as the other interesting related data like the calendar information, that the users are willing to share with us, There’s others, such as the email that they share with us. And so we can do a better job.

Another thing that we have been very clear [on] from the get-go is that we do want Cortana to have some form of personality. So that’s actually another kind of design choice. If you look at Siri and Cortana, they probably have a very similar philosophy there. And other agents may think differently.

Microsoft is encouraging me to have a conversation in German – a language I do not speak – with someone else using Skype Translator. But speech recognition is fundamental to other aspects of productivity, including dictation. Why isn’t dictation playing a more prominent role within Word and Office?

I will tell you that there is really no reason why it is not playing a much more prominent role yet. Rest assured that we are infusing AI technology into all Microsoft products. I do want to tell you that if you missed it, a couple of weeks ago we actually announced that we broke the world record in error rates in speech recognition in the Switchboard test data. IBM has always been on top, and as of now we have reached number one.

We are racing hard hopefully to become the first one to achieve human parity [recognition at the same level as a human]. Hopefully anytime soon.

Windows 10’s speech technology dates back to Windows Vista, while Cortana’s speech technology was apparently developed more recently. When will the Cortana speech technology be merged into Windows?

The technology that we use in Cortana is not based on the Vista technology. I guess Vista is like a grandpa agent. That’s also why the Microsoft researchers are teaming up with those AI product teams to really accelerate the cycle from the technology we have in the lab to the products that we get into our users’ hands. We’re very excited about this and hope to show you more progress soon.


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