Microsoft is reportedly developing an advanced version of its personal assistant application Cortana and hopes to expand its use to competitors’ devices.
According to a report by Reuters, Microsoft has launched an artificial intelligence project called Einstein, hoping to give Cortana a competitive edge over Apple’s more successful Siri system.
Cortana has so far been available on Windows phones and will come in a version for PCs with the arrival of Windows 10 this autumn. However, Microsoft wants to go further and offer the app as a standalone software for phones and tablets powered by Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating system.
"This kind of technology, which can read and understand email, will play a central role in the next roll out of Cortana, which we are working on now for the fall time frame," said Eric Horvitz, managing director of Microsoft Research and a part of the Einstein project.
The endeavour is in line with efforts of Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella to free Microsoft’s products from the firm’s Windows operating system, making the applications more versatile.
Reuters said Microsoft believes the artificial intelligence upgrade it is currently developing will make Cortana the first intelligent personal assistant capable of anticipating users’ needs.
While Apple’s Siri focuses on responding to requests, Google’s smart assistant already offers limited predictive capability. Cortana, however, aspires to more.
"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," said Horvitz.
Microsoft envisions Cortana to be able to keep an eye on the user’s schedule based on information it extracts from email. It will be able, for example, to instruct the user to leave for the airport weeks after it received a flight confirmation email. The system will also determine the user’s position using the device’s inbuilt GPS and recommend the fastest route to the airport based on current traffic conditions.
None of the individual steps are a breakthrough, but creating an artificial intelligence that can stitch together the processes marks a breakthrough in usefulness, Microsoft says.
Rivals are on the same track. Google's latest mobile app uses the predictive power generated from billions of searches to work out what a user is doing, what they are interested in, and sending relevant information, such as when a favourite sports team is playing next.
Apple is also pushing Siri, which uses Microsoft's Bing search engine in the background, into new areas with its CarPlay and HomeKit platforms, as well as the recently unveiled Apple Watch.
Microsoft tried to create digital assistants before. In 1995 it released its Microsoft Bob, which was supposed to make using a computer easy, but ended up being a frequent target of jokes. The Office Assistant nicknamed 'Clippy' suffered a similar fate a few years later.