It’s fair to say that Siri, the helpful AI living inside the latest generation of iPhones, is a mind blowing piece of technology. That was certainly true when she was first rolled out to the mainstream public in 2011, when the idea of asking your phone a question still seemed pretty sci-fi. In the time since, Siri has proved how useful she is and is now relied upon by millions. But Microsoft believes Siri is already obsolete, and expects to leave her in the dust. That’s where Cortana comes in.
Cortana is Microsoft’s own AI personal assistant, which is out in beta for Windows phones in the United States, and will roll out worldwide by the end of the year. Microsoft says Cortana is not just a direct answer to Siri, but something far more powerful—and there’s at least a chance they’ll be right.
That’s partly because Siri, as impressive as she is, has limits. She has changed little in four years, and while her voice recognition is good she makes mistakes often enough that you notice it. In other words, it doesn’t always seem like we’re living in the future anymore.
But Microsoft’s claim is that Cortana is going to do more and do it better. And they have a lot going for them. Specifically, Cortana has the chance to outperform Siri in three main areas:
- Better speech recognition and natural language understanding. The effectiveness of any digital personal assistant depends entirely on how well they can understand what you’re saying. That comes in two parts: correctly hearing the words, and then correctly inferring their meaning. That second part in particular is one of the hardest technological feats to pull off, and that’s exactly why it can sometimes be hard to speak to Siri. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Microsoft, with its vast array of technology products, has been working on this for years—albeit not for a personal assistant. Cortana is supposed to come out of the gate with better natural language understanding, which means she’ll be an easier app to use and potentially a more successful one.
- Search integration. One huge advantage that Microsoft has is that it owns its own search engine, Bing, and that it has built all the technology involved in Cortana. That’s a very different paradigm from Siri, who was developed independently before being bought by Apple, which has no search engine of its own. That means Microsoft can look directly at its search algorithm and either tailor how Cortana interacts with it or even create a modified “Cortana” algorithm that helps her find the right information for a user. Theoretically that means Cortana can answer more questions, and answer them more fully.
- More potential abilities. Both of the above factors combine to mean that Cortana could do things that Siri simply can’t. If the list of services Cortana can perform is wider than that of Siri, Cortana will both be a better product from the start and also ignite an arms race to make even better personal assistant apps.
None of this proves that Cortana will be the better app, and she’ll almost certainly have hiccups during the ongoing beta. But with better technology at their disposal, and all of it built under one roof, Microsoft is poised to be the new leader in consumer AI.