Why Microsoft Turned Cortana Into A Chatterbox

Will the AI we talk to be our servant, friend, or god?

Apple’s voice-recognizing digital assistant, Siri, has a dry wit. Ask her to talk dirty, and she’ll respond, “Humus. Compost. Pumice. Silt. Gravel.” Microsoft recently debuted a similar digital assistant of their own. She’s called Cortana, modeled after an AI character in Microsoft’s hit video game series Halo. And much like Siri, she has a personality, though hers leans a bit more toward cockiness. Ask Cortana if she’s better than Siri, and she’ll brag about her video game namesake–pointing out that in 500 years, she’ll save the universe. But the reasons for designing Cortana this way extend past mere novelty.


Engadget published an excellent deep dive on just why and how Microsoft turned their alert-delivering, calendar-managing, direction-giving assistant into a confident, bantering sci-fi artificial intelligence with a Y chromosome. An excerpt:

The Cortana of today is bold and conversational, but that wasn’t always the case for the project. The type of personality Microsoft originally envisioned at the start of the AI project–a more formal “How can I help you?” tone–was different from what actually launched. It wasn’t until the team was about four months in that the idea of using Cortana as the program’s actual name started to gain traction. At which point, the team decided to get 343 Industries (the studio that currently produces Halo) involved in shaping her personality and bringing the smartphone version more in line with the Halo character. The studio provided the team with Cortana’s backstory and filled a whiteboard with every attribute they could think of.

Hendrich and Harrison liked a lot of what they heard from 343 and began to incorporate many of those characteristics into the program. This effectively shaped Cortana into the AI she is now. They made her more confident, much more brash and had her be clearer in her responses to users. Or, as Harrison put it, “She got more comfortable talking about how awesome she is.”

Cortana may be cocky, but as Microsoft’s internal testing proved, that shift in tone works. As soon as the team gave Cortana a boost in confidence, people immediately began responding to her more positively.

Admittedly, when reading through sample responses from both Siri and Cortana, it can be tough to spot the nuanced differences of tone. Both AIs speak in simple, clear sentences. Both AIs make bad jokes. Both AIs will search the web and pull up directions for you without question.
And in this sense, Microsoft and Apple have taken a vastly different approach to voice than Google, because Google’s Now platform has no personality at all. In its various permutations (on your desktop, Android phone, or inside Google Glass), there is no feeling of banter or companionship because no one ever talks back. Google Now is merely a conduit to information. It’s more or less the Google search bar in spoken form.

Siri and Cortana are modeled to be our robotic companions and servants. Google Now is omniscient, all-powerful ether. Google Now is not a friend. It’s a silent god that takes our calls.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach


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