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Tech Speak: When Our PDAs Become Too Clever For Their Own Good Siri vs. Cortana And The Virtual Intelligence Race That Is Sure to Have Allen Turing Turning In His Grave

Barring any unforeseen circumstances Microsoft is due to release their answer to Apple’s Intelligent Personal Assistant (IPA) “Siri” some time later this month —or barring that— sometime in early July. Microsoft’s entry into the recently re-branded Personal Digital Assistant market —Cortana— comes at a time when the drive to create a more effective and lifelike Virtual Assistants (VAs) for mobile devices is heating up as both Google and Samsung are throwing a great deal of money into improving their own alternatives to Apple’s monotone and jarringly monosyllabic ghost in the machine.


Cortana (which no matter how you look at it is a bit of an ominous thing for a company to name their chatty new mobile device bound wunderkind given the mental instability of the Halo Combat Evolved character upon which ‘she’ is loosely based) aims to better some of Siri’s more annoyingly impersonal qualities, by being better able to keep track of… “you” and you’re personal habits. In fact, one of the features of Cortana which is being quite heavily pushed at the moment is her “Notebook.” The “Notebook” is a composite database where Cortana will store information about your interests, appointments, and weekly schedule that will allow her to make inferences and assumptions about you in order to better anticipate your needs.


Which isn’t such a bad thing I suppose, but I’d by lying if I didn’t tell you that the first thing I thought about after hearing this was something along the lines of: “Hmmm… adaptive algorithms built into networked machines… Haven’t countless science fiction authors written a veritable Magnum Opus about the problems which arise when we allow machines to start forming opinions about us?”


What’s in a PDA? And the innumerable things that Cortana can do for you!

Anxiety about the imminent dawning of the age of the machine overlords aside, Cortana boasts a wide range of features which go beyond (and make use of) the information stored in the “Notebook.” If you head on over to you will find a brief rundown of all the things which Cortana has been designed to do. And besides the the incalculable utility of having a phone which can give you weather updates, find local restaurants, and provide directions when needed; the thing which really jumped out at me was the idea that: “You can chat with Cortana about whatever’s on your mind. Ask her questions that you might ask a new friend, or tell her how you’re feeling she has opinions and stories to share…”


I wish Microsoft would have left the underlined sections of the above quote out and replaced it with something along the lines of: “Cortana is better optimized to receive voice related commands/inputs and better able to deal with unintentionally ambiguous requests.” Because in an era when even the most basic kinds of human interaction are going the way of the DoDo —and given the increasing number of individuals willing to declare their undying love for their computers, game consoles, and wireless devices… Why for the life of me would I want to make use of a program that is designed to be my friend?


Call me old fashioned, but I’ve always held the opinion that “friendship” is not a state of being that aught to be ‘forced’ either in ‘reality,’ or for that matter, ‘hypothetically’ as well. And if we choose to adopt the view that our interaction with these ever evolving VA’s as a means to acclimatize our species to interacting with actual AI’s sometime in the not so distant future. I don’t want to be the one who has to explain to the leader of the machines why so many of us programmed the equivalent of their digital grandparents to refer to them as “Sexy Beast…,” “Hot Stuff…,” “Batman,” or worse yet, a “Boss Ass Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!


But I digress…

Siri & Cortana go Heat to Head

When put head to head with Siri, Cortana isn’t exactly found wanting, but neither does she blow the competition out of the water. In his comparative article “Cortana vs. Siri: Battle of the Virtual Assistants,” Mashable’s Pete Pachal found that Siri benefits from having 3 years of after release development and updates under her belt which understandably makes her more adept at accessing 3rd party apps, but that Cortana excelled when it came to dealing with more personalized content.

Writing in a similar vein, Mobilegeek’s Steward Haston and GeekSugar’s Nicole Nguyen support Microsoft’s decision to use Cortana as both their text based and voice activated search utility, which makes it feel as if Cortana is more fully integrated with your mobile device’s OS. And as someone who finds himself increasingly frustrated by my mobile device’s desire to “talk” with me, I like the idea of being able to use both typing and text as a viable command input/output option. Its faster for one, and it benefits from the use of both Bing and Google’s built in search assist functions. Which gives Cortana a slight edge when it comes to being able to work around some of the more pernicious and ongoing frustrations caused by being limited to a voice only information input.

However, herein lies the problem because if typing a command into your computer or mobile device remains the fastest and most reliable way of achieving your desired ends, just what exactly is the issue that VAs like Siri and Cortana are supposed to fix?


I mean if you’re going to insist on strapping us with something which —at best— fails miserably at carrying on a conversation, and —at worst—, acts like the digital equivalent of Stewart’s mother from the Big Bang Theory. At least give us the ability to download voice packs off of the app store. I might not like the fact that my SmartPhone talks to me, but I’ll sure as heck get more use out of something that sounds like James Earl Jones, Patrick Stewart, Craig Ferguson, Charles Dance, Ian McKellen, Morgan Freeman, Nathan Fillion or better yet Morena Baccarin… 


I’d talk with a mobile device which sounds like Morena Baccarin.


Heck I’d even be polite!


But until then, I reserve the right to silence the intolerable chatterbox, or better yet, I reserve the right to hire a digital exorcist to banish this latest digital poltergeist destined to clutter the background processes of my otherwise pristine a mobile device!



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