Amazon and Microsoft want their AI assistants to be friends. Here’s what that really means. – Business Insider


Jeff Bezos Bill Gates Tennis
Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos play tennis back in
2001.

Getty
Images


On Wednesday, Microsoft and Amazon made a surprise announcement:

Cortana and Alexa, their respective AI-based voice
assistants
, will work together.  

Or, as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos succinctly put it in a tweet: “Alexa
has made a new friend.”

For anyone following the rise of artificial intelligence and the
spread of virtual assistants into our everyday lives, this feels
like a big moment. 

Your home could soon be inhabited by multiple virtual beings
— each already capable of talking to you — now also communicating
with each other. 

It sounds like science fiction. And there’s no question
that this will bring about some cool new experiences and
functionality when it takes effect at the end of 2017.

In real life, though, it’s going to be a lot longer, if ever,
before this AI friendship really pays off for you, the
customer. Here’s why.

The big idea 

The idea, say the two companies, is to play to each virtual
assistant’s strengths. 

Microsoft claims 145 million monthly active Cortana users,
and
Alexa-powered Amazon Echo devices dominate
the still very
young market for smart speakers. 

Alexa is good at (surprise, surprise) letting you shop on
Amazon. And Alexa has already emerged as the
central concierge for a veritable menagerie of smart home
products
, from smart locks to refrigerators to
lightbulbs. 


Microsoft, by contrast, pitches Cortana as the ideal assistant
for the tech-savvy professional
: It’s plugged in to the
Office 365 productivity suite, so it has a view into your
calendar and Word and Excel documents. In the not-so-distant
future, Microsoft has said, Cortana and LinkedIn will even
integrate to tell you about the people in your next
meeting.

Let the two AIs play together, and you get some nice
benefits.

You’ll be able to use your Amazon Echo (or other
Alexa device
) to talk to Cortana, for example. And you can
 use

 your Windows 10 PC (or your phone’s

Cortana app
) to talk to Alexa.

Just say “Alexa, open Cortana,” or “Cortana, open
Alexa,” and your device will hand over control to the appropriate
virtual assistant.  


Satya Nadella
Microsoft
CEO Satya Nadella discusses the Cortana app for
Android.

REUTERS/Jim
Young


But there are some significant limitations, as the
New York Times reports
. The assistants will be walled off
from each other, almost entirely. So if you’re using Microsoft’s
Cortana on your Amazon Echo Dot, and you want to play music
from your Amazon Prime account, you’ll have to switch back to
Alexa.

This makes strategic sense — Amazon probably doesn’t want
Microsoft to see its customers’ shopping behavior. And Microsoft
has its own data that it doesn’t want Alexa accessing directly.
But from a user experience perspective, it stinks. Imagine
needing to ask one specific member of your household every
time you want to turn on the TV, and somebody else to dim
the lights. 

I can’t imagine that a lot of people out there will
actually remember to switch between their assistants.
Research released earlier in 2017
shows that while people
will try lots of Alexa “skills,” or apps, they don’t really stick
with them. And as it stands in this first version, Cortana is
essentially just another Alexa skill. 

Eventually, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told the New York Times,
the goal is for Alexa (or Cortana) to automatically route the
right question to the right assistant, without your needing to
think about it. The idea is that one assistant might be for your
personal life, and one for your professional life. 

This is when things will really get interesting.

The long road ahead

AI interoperability is a grand idea, and something that
Amazon and Microsoft will probably brag about a lot in the months
and years to come. 

And it’s easy to understand why they’re so
excited. amazon alexa lg refrigerator smart fridgeLG
announces its new Amazon Alexa-powered smart fridge at CES
2017
David Becker/Getty
Images

Amazon and Microsoft
both missed out on the smartphone boom
, relegating them to
providing apps and services for other companies’ platforms.
The rise of the voice assistant represents a whole new
platform; a change in the status quo that both Microsoft and
Amazon are hoping to exploit.

With their powers combined, it gives both assistants
footholds into new markets — a vital hedge as Apple and
Google go on the offensive with their own Siri and Google
Assistant
heading into the holiday shopping season
.

Despite the shortcomings of the current Alexa-Cortana
partnership, Microsoft and Amazon could be on track to
solve a huge existential threat to the future of technology. The
explosion of virtual assistants has set loose a slew of
technologies including Alexa, Cortana, Siri, Google Assistant,
Samsung Bixby, and maybe
even Facebook’s M
, that are spreading through your
home — first, with speakers, then, with voice-controlled
tablets, and next, home
appliances
.


Amazon Echo
Amazon
Echo

AP/Jeff Chiu

It means that there’s going to be a war for your home: Your
toaster may use a different voice assistant than your fridge,
which may be incompatible with all the home entertainment system
in your living room. When you say “hello” to your home, it
may answer back in a veritable chorus of different voices. 

That’s the kind of chaotic scenario that nobody wants.

One obvious solution is to buy gadgets that
support only one company’s particular assistant, similar to
today’s iPhone or Windows ecosystems. But with the overall
virtual assistant market still very much in flux, it may be
a while before things settle down to the point where there
are any real “safe,” future-proofed options.

That makes the  automatic voice assistant aggregation
envisioned by Bezos the sanest way to deal with the
explosion of intelligence in the living room and office. But
this system will only live up to its true potential and
catch on with consumers if the gang of virtual assistants are
able talk to each other on their own, without too many
constraints. And for now, that’s still science fiction.

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