Rivals Microsoft, Amazon Let Their Intelligent Assistants Be Friends

Xconomy Seattle — 

Two of the biggest names in tech—Cortana and Alexa—are getting together.

The makers of these two intelligent, voice-enabled assistants—Seattle’s tech giants, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), respectively—said Wednesday they are collaborating to make it easier to access one with the other.

Specifically, later this year, Windows 10 users will be able to call up Amazon’s Alexa via Cortana. People with an Amazon Echo and related smart-speaker devices, meanwhile, will be able to call up Cortana from these Alexa-powered devices.

“The world is big and so multifaceted,” Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos says in a news release. “There are going to be multiple successful intelligent agents, each with access to different sets of data and with different specialized skill areas. Together, their strengths will complement each other and provide customers with a richer and even more helpful experience.”

The release notes that Alexa now has more than 20,000 skills built by third-party developers—everything from knock-knock jokes to guided meditation to quoting the current price of bitcoin, not to mention shopping on Amazon. Cortana, meanwhile, offers a direct interface with many of the Microsoft productivity tools that are part of people’s daily routines: the ability to book meetings, read e-mails, and set reminders through a voice interface.

The collaboration is noteworthy on several fronts. The Cortana and Alexa voice-controlled assistants— like their competitors from Google, Apple, and IBM—are not side projects for these companies. They are strategically important technologies that represent the future of human-computer interaction—the portal through which tens of millions of people are today interacting with machine intelligence. Amazon is running a competition to create an Alexa chatbot that can carry on a conversation for 20 minutes. Microsoft continues to set new records in speech recognition accuracy, and recently updated its corporate mission statement to emphasize the importance of artificial intelligence.

So, it’s somewhat surprising to see even this limited collaboration between Microsoft and Amazon, which are competitors in a growing number of arenas—including cloud computing services and recruiting. It indicates that the future may well belong to the intelligence—powered by the cloud, available whenever and wherever you want it—not the device. At least that seems to be the view from two players that have seen their mobile device efforts fall flat.

The companies have been at work on this collaboration for more than a year, after Bezos initiated the idea, according to The New York Times. Bezos told the Times’ Nick Wingfield that he sees a future in which people will call on a range of A.I.s, depending on what they’re trying to accomplish.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says that the collaboration fits with a company priority to make Cortana available everywhere. “Bringing Cortana’s knowledge, Office 365 integration, commitments and reminders to Alexa is a great step toward that goal,” he says in the news release.

(It also seems to undercut somewhat Microsoft’s recent launch of a Cortana-enabled smart speaker manufactured by Harmon Kardon, as you can presumably now do anything you’d want to do with Cortana via an Amazon device.)

Both Bezos and Nadella suggested to the Times they would be open to a similar collaboration with Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant.

Microsoft vice president of Cortana engineering Andrew Shuman says in a blog post that the collaboration will extend to Android and iOS in the future.

That means at some point you could use Microsoft’s assistant in an app on your Apple iPhone to call up and access Amazon’s assistant. That sentence would startle my 2007 self.

Photo via Microsoft.