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Here’s how Amazon’s Alexa will work with Microsoft’s Cortana

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We just got our first taste of how digital assistants will talk to each other.

At its Build 2018 developers conference, Microsoft showed how its AI assistant, Cortana, will interact with Amazon Alexa, assuming you use both. Since many use Alexa at home but Microsoft products at work, an integration would be a bridge between personal conveniences like ordering Ubers or playing music and task-oriented needs like calendars and business communication. 

This is a major first step toward voice-controlled systems interacting with one another, with one filling in where the other comes short. Companies like Apple may allow their digital assistants to interact with specific services — ask Siri to show you the best-reviewed restaurant nearby and it will display a list with star ratings from Yelp and OpenTable — but this pairing appears to go deeper.

In an onstage demo, Megan Saunders, Microsoft’s general manger of Cortana, began talking to an Amazon Echo, adding milk to a shopping list, then commanded Alexa to open Cortana and tell her about her day. At that point, the voice changed to Cortana’s (a subtle shift, since they’re both even-tone female voices) to go over calendar appointments from Outlook. Saunders then commanded Cortana to send an email to Tom Taylor, Amazon’s senior vice president of Alexa, who was standing across the stage from her. It signed off with the signature Cortana chime.

When Taylor saw the email on Outlook on his PC, he first asked Cortana the location of a restaurant, but then he said, “Open Alexa.” The voice changed to Alexa and Taylor ordered an Uber to get to the restaurant. Then he asked Alexa to turn off a lamp on his demo table with the command, “Turn off the lights.”

Taylor then asked Alexa what it “thought” of Cortana, and got this answer: “I like Cortana. We both have experience with light rings, although hers is more of a Halo.” (Cortana’s name comes from the AI assistant in Halo, the popular Xbox franchise.) 

The assistant integration is the fruit of a partnership that began last year, when the two companies announced the intent to make their two assistants compatible. While Amazon’s position in the digital assistant space is much stronger than Microsoft’s, it’s also clear that users live in a multi-device and multi-ecosystem world, and that many interact with multiple assistants. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella addressed this in his keynote, saying Microsoft must adapt to a “multi-agent” world.

The integration looks like a great first step, though we’d love to see more ways to have the user invoke either assistant, and perhaps even have them proactively “interject” based on the query. There’s also the question of whether Apple’s Siri or the Google Assistant will ever get in this party. The voice assistant wars are still in early days, but they’re definitely getting interesting.

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