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Amazon and Microsoft Want Their AI Assistants to Get Along

August 30, 2017

Alexa will soon be asking Cortana for the occasional favor. That’s thanks to a new initiative between Amazon and Microsoft, which will allow their respective voice assistants to call upon each other to perform tasks for their owners.

That may seem like an unusual move in a nascent sector where any competitive advantage is surely key. But according to Jeff Bezos in an interview with the New York Times, it’s something that the companies have been plotting since as far back as May 2016. The idea is to allow people the option of using the AI best-suited to a given task. Bezos points out, for instance, that Microsoft’s Cortana works better for calendar scheduling if you use Outlook. Whereas Amazon’s is better for, say, impulse purchases.

The bet, it seems, is that encouraging people to use AI assistants as much as possible by providing the choice will be more beneficial for both firms than having their software work in isolation. They may be right: it can be infuriating when Alexa fails to understand a request, and having Cortana as a backup may encourage users to stick with the AI assistants as they continue to develop.

It may, however,  feel a little clumsy to use. To have your assistant use the skills of the other, you’ll have to say “Alexa, open Cortana” (or vice versa), before asking questions or giving commands like you usually would. Even if it’s stilted, though, the flexibility may prove attractive for users, given that, as we've recently explained, AI assistants are only going to become a larger part of our lives.

Microsoft and Amazon haven’t yet included Apple or Google, which have their own AI assistants in the shape of Siri and Assistant, in the love-in. Though Bezos tells the Times that he’d welcome their involvement.

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