Microsoft wants you to talk more with your computer – and have more useful conversations.
The software giant is promoting new uses for Cortana – its voice-activated answer to Apple’s Siri digital assistant – including the ability to interact with software “bots” that can have limited conversations with users and help with tasks such as booking a hotel room, ordering a meal or arranging a delivery.
Voice-activated services such as Siri, OK Google or Amazon’s Alexa can already perform tasks for users such as playing a song at a request or answering a question.
Bots are smarter than traditional software apps, though, using artificial intelligence to respond to a wider range of commands and in a convenient, conversational way.
Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, at the opening on Wednesday of the company’s annual conference for software developers, touted the power of “conversational intelligence” as he outlined a long-term vision in which Cortana, a central feature of Windows 10, becomes a digital concierge for other online interactions.
“Bots are the new apps,” Nadella told developers.
Lilian Rincon, a program manager for Microsoft’s Skype service, demonstrated how this might work.
After receiving a video message from her boss that mentioned an upcoming conference in Dublin, Rincon used Cortana to mark the dates on her calendar. Cortana then used Skype to contact a hotel chain’s bot, which suggested a room and helped Rincon make a reservation for those dates.
Integrating Cortana with other companies’ bots could increase the use of Microsoft’s services, and make them more valuable, said analyst Ross MacMillan, who follows tech companies for RBC Capital Markets, in an email on Wednesday.
Bots are not perfect, however. Microsoft recently shut down an experimental internet bot called “Tay” after some Twitter users taught it to make offensive statements.
Nadella acknowledged the episode Wednesday, saying it shows the importance of designing technology to be “inclusive and respectful.”
Cortana isn’t as well-known as Siri or OK Google. But unlike those services, which are found mostly on smartphones and tablets, Microsoft has made Cortana available on desktop and laptop PCs, via Windows 10.
But Microsoft, after seeing its business suffer because fewer people buy new PCs, has also released Cortana as an app for smartphones and tablets that run Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating software. Similarly, Skype also works on those platforms.
Microsoft is now releasing programming tools for developers to build bots that will interact with Cortana.
Not surprisingly, Microsoft would be glad to see people use these services on Skype, the internet video and voice-calling service that it owns. But some of its tools for creating bots will work with other messaging services: Microsoft listed Slack and standard text messaging, among others.