Microsoft Cortana set to hit Australian shores

21 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Here’s What Really Makes Microsoft’s Cortana So Amazing.

Cortana, which originally was released for Windows Phone and before that was the artificial intelligence character in Microsoft’s blockbuster Halo series, will be localised specifically for the Australian market. “Cortana is customised to reflect the local language, idioms and speech patterns of each country,” Microsoft’s group program manager for Cortana and search at Microsoft’s Windows PC, phone and tablet group Marcus Ash wrote in a blog post. “We craft Cortana’s local personality based on insights about each culture while at the same time staying true to the foundational principles that are universal to all markets: Cortana is positive, confident, intelligent and transparent.” When Microsoft releases Windows 10 to the world on July 29, it will introduce millions of people to Cortana, its chatty, voice-activated digital assistant. And Windows 10 is a big part of Microsoft’s product push all over the world, with availability in U.S., UK, China, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain at its July 29 launch. In a post today, the software firm detailed when it will launch Cortana into new markets with Windows 10, and how it will slot the tool into various countries, each of which have their own hallmarks. But not every Windows 10 user will get to know the same Cortana: She will alter her behavior, ever so slightly, according to a user’s home country, Microsoft tells TIME.

Cortana is rolling out first to members of the Windows Insider early testing program by the end of this year, and then to everybody else using Windows 10 after those early international adopters put Cortana through her paces. It turns out that it’s important that Cortana does get that pre-launch workout, because Microsoft’s blog post also revealed she’s getting tweaked in each market to better serve users in those countries. Microsoft’s Cortana team says the goal is to strike up a chatty, inoffensive rapport with users, in the hope that users will reward Cortana with their trust and open the kimono on their personal data. For example in China, Cortana will track air quality and alert users: It extends to more cosmetic things, too. in China, users requested a voice for Cortana who “sounded like she was smiling.” Meanwhile, the UK wanted an “English Rose,” a more easy-going personality with some self-deprecating modesty—and a dry, ironic sense of humor that includes “playful irony” if she detects you’re asking silly questions.

That data is critical to Cortana’s success, because if Microsoft wants to outwit the brainiest digital assistants on the market — Apple’s Siri and Google Now — Cortana will first need to take a good, hard look at your browser history, your emails and your web searches. If you don’t put a face on it and make it emotional to people, it’s just hard to believe that people will tell us information that will make Cortana really great for them.” To that end, Microsoft has recruited a global staff of ethnographers, voice actors and even playwrights to make a veritable United Nations of Cortanas.

Dryness and irony are traits that filter subtly into her personality, and she uses playful sarcasm in her responses if she senses you’re fooling around. Respondents worldwide preferred a female to a male assistant, ideally in her 20’s, 30’s tops — not one surveyed population expressed enthusiasm for a middle-aged assistant. At one point, the Cortana team considered tapping a staff writer from The Late Show With David Letterman, but decided a whip-smart joke machine might alienate some users. When Cortana was a Windows Phone feature, and not a core part of the future of Windows, it seemed almost off that the company was willing to invest so much into a market (China) where you could count its market share on one finger.

Brits, in what will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched a BBC sitcom, couldn’t get enough of self-deprecation, and Cortana aims to please. “Dryness and irony really appear subtly there,” says Susan Hendrich, a principal program manager who is spearheading Cortana’s cultural training. It takes upwards of 11 months to get Cortana’s voice just right for each nation, time spent auditioning actors, writing scripts and recording local idioms. Chinese users posed a puzzle for Hendrich. “They wanted a voice that sounded as if it was smiling,” she said. “I can listen to Chinese voices and have no idea what they’re saying and know when these attributes come out.” See for yourself if you can hear the difference: Cultural fluency is just Cortana’s entry point. Personality can go a long way toward maintaining a positive relationship between man and machine. “People are generally more forgiving toward a system that has personality attributes than one that doesn’t,” says Ash.

And to ensure Cortana doesn’t overstep personal boundaries, Microsoft has engineered her to “forget” uncannily precise details, just as a human assistant would. “I personally love Molly Moo’s ice cream,” says Hendrichs, “but a personal assistant wouldn’t observe the exact time and date I went to Molly Moo’s.” And if Cortana can skirt the line between intimacy and invasion, Microsoft expects her artificial intelligence to pay dividends to both its users and its shareholders. As Ash says: “The idea of this unbounded, ‘I know so much about you I can help you in ways you don’t quite expect, I can see patterns that you can’t see.’ That’s the magic.”

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