When the major information technology companies in the world discuss the merits of personal digital assistant systems like Cortana, Siri, and Echo, what they are really talking about is applied artificial intelligence. And if what CEO Satya Nadella described during his Innovation Keynote address at the 2016 Microsoft Ignite Conference is any indication of what these companies envision for the future, it may be time to learn how to get comfortable with an AI that knows you about as intimately as someone can be known.
Four pillars of Cortana
According to the strategic plan outlined in the Innovation Keynote, Microsoft's vision for AI is to make Cortana an integral part of your everyday interactions with your computerized devices. The theme of this strategy is referred to as Democratizing AI. Cortana is to have an essential role for every person and every organization.
The presentation categorized this Cortana integration into these four pillars:
- Agent: This pillar is the familiar Cortana that arrived with Windows 10, the one that searches the internet for you and reminds you of your appointments.
- Applications: This pillar is less familiar, but may be very familiar in the near future. The keynote presentation focused a lot on bots and how users would soon be using chat applications to perform functions in other applications. Adjusting your NFL Fantasy Team roster was the prime example.
- Services: This pillar refers to the Cognitive Services Microsoft is providing to developers. In other words, developers can use Microsoft's existing AI-related APIs in their apps. One of the examples mentioned in the keynote was a new Uber identification system that uses image recognition APIs.
- Infrastructure: This pillar refers to the intelligent infrastructure of Microsoft Azure and its scaling capabilities for cloud computing and AI functions performed at the server level. The amount of sheer computing power Microsoft can call upon from its cloud infrastructure was impressive.
There are two keys to democratizing AI going forward. To be truly effective, an AI system must be able to learn as it goes and then retain and apply that learning to interactions as they arise in the future. The Innovation Keynote presentation devoted a great deal of time talking about machine learning and the development of neural networks.
This is a major change from just a few years ago. At one time the concept of a neural nets in practical use was possible only in theory. Now it's a reality and about to become common in day-to-day life.
The second key, and the one Microsoft and other companies will have the most problem with, is us. While the programming of AI and the creation of neural nets is all well and good, to be effective Cortana is going to have to get to know us—completely and intimately.
Cortana is going to know things like the fact that you indulge yourself with a cheeseburger on Friday afternoons after you have kept to your diet all week. It will know that you like to check your football fantasy team roster on Tuesday mornings rather than check your email like you should. Cortana is likely to discover patterns you didn't even know existed—perhaps even patterns you will find embarrassing.
The question is this: Will you be okay with an AI knowing that much about you? Are you willing to let an AI, ultimately controlled by a for-profit corporation, get that close to you?
Artificial intelligence is no longer a theoretical possibility. It is reality. Microsoft and other companies are looking to make AI an integral part of each person's and each organization's daily routine. The benefits include better efficiency and more productivity for individuals and enterprises alike. However, in exchange for that increased productivity we will be asked to share some of the most intimate details of our lives with a personal digital assistant and the AI that supports it.
So is that something we are ready to do? Is it even something we will realize we are doing?
You can watch the entire 2016 Microsoft Ignite Innovation Keynote presentation here:
- Microsoft goes AI crazy: Now Office 365 can track what you really get up to in meetings
- Q&A: A powerful look at the future of AI, from its epicenter at Carnegie Mellon
- How AI and automation could hollow out the US job market
- Enterprise IoT deployment creates a target-rich environment for criminals
Are you willing to share personal details with a personal digital assistant? Is what you get out of AI worth that much to you? Share your opinion with fellow TechRepublic members.
Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.