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Microsoft’s Satya Nadella shown up by confused Cortana assistant

Thu 17 Sep 2015

Even when you build them yourself, you can’t get the staff. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had to apply some adroit handling to a hilarious act of mechanical misinterpretation at the annual Salesforce.com conference. Asking Cortana ‘Show me my most at-risk opportunities’, the AI proceeded to open up a Bing search results page for milk.

In fact it’s a problem of voice recognition, and one that isn’t going to go away for artificial intelligences that need to interpret the communications of their non-binary meatware owners: Nadella fluffed the line first time, saying “Show me the- my most at risk…” etc. Hence Cortana’s interpretation, ‘Show me to buy milk at this opportunity’.

Things didn’t get any better on a second attempt, as Cortana proceeded to respond to the repeated imperative by opening up a reminders calendar.

“Oh come on!” decried a desperate Nadella, who handled a PR nightmare about as adroitly as anyone could possibly have managed.

Eventually he gave up and continued with his lengthy presentation.

In general Cortana’s speech recognition seems to have earned it praise since the launch of Windows 10 – but not so much for what it can actually make of the array of words that it has understood correctly. Brad Bourque at Digital Trends finds Cortana evasive at times, noting that ‘while Cortana always knows what you said, she doesn’t always understand it.’ However he acknowledges that many of the problems of interacting with it are more closely linked to the shortcoming of Microsoft’s Bing search engine, which the AI refers to in so many matters.

“I can’t really blame Cortana, though, because the issues have more to do with Bing than with her. On the Bing news page, trending headlines are truncated and often impossible to understand. Some headlines are so badly mauled, they seem randomly generated. “$1.5 million water fine?” a headline inquires next to a picture of a man by a fence. “Luxury dog hotels!” another shares with a picture of a swimming pool.”

It would be ironic and perhaps a little cruel to say that Cortana is ‘no Einstein’, since the underlying AI engine which powers it is named after the physicist. Managing director of Microsoft Research Eric Horvitz provoked interest in the pre-Windows 10 ferment earlier this year by hinting at a deep level of integration between Cortana and its ‘user’, observing “We’re defining the competitive landscape… of who can provide the most supportive services that make life easier, keep track of things, that complement human memory in a way that helps us get things done.”

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