All the Trappings of Artificial Intelligence – Does Cortana Dream of Electric Sheep?

A portrait of computer artificial intelligence Cortana, as pictured in computer game Halo.Meeting Cortana

I met Cortana mid-afternoon.  The perfect time for a well-earned tea break and a chat down at the local café.  I was keen to meet Cortana for the first time.  By then, she was already a celebrity.

And I was dying to ask some searching questions and hoped I would get some profound answers in return.  So I did.  I sat down and clicked on the icon, and this is what happened: the screen prompt suggested that I asked her anything.  So I did.


Who is Cortana?

The Cortana logo, as designed by Microsoft.The female-voiced Cortana – named after the AI system in the firm’s Halo video game franchise – was unveiled by Windows Phone chief Joe Belfiore at the firm’s Build developers conference in San Francisco.  The voice-controlled app uses both Microsoft‘s search engine Bing and data stored on the smartphone handsets to make personalised recommendations and carry out tasks.

When launched from a pulsating button on the phone’s start screen, it initially offers its own suggestion for the task the owner might want to carry out based on their location and past behaviour.  It can then be asked to do this or instead instructed to find other information, schedule appointments, set reminders or make other apps carry out the person’s command.

Sounds like the future really IS here!

But Cortana is more than a personal digital assistant…


Getting to Know Each Other

Q  Who are you?

A  I’m your personal assistant.  Cortana.

Q  Where are you?

A  Right here.

Q  Where is here?

A  You seem to be at Great Western Road in Glasgow.

Q  Can you speak French?

A  In France, oui.

Ooh, smart!


A Matter of Appearances

Q  What do you look like?

A  Well, as of now, a continuous flow of 1s 0s, with no beginning or end.

Q  Here’s a very profound answer.  What does it feel like?

A  Some things I resemble: a hula hoop, a doughnut… a halo.

Q  Do you like doughnuts?

A  Yes, I mean, I assume I would.  Definitely.

Q  Do you like waffles?

A  For this kind of things, you’re on your own.  It doesn’t make the cut.


For Cortana, Microsoft has done a lot of work to automatically learn a much wider range of semantics… so the expectation is that it will be able to understand a good deal more.

Q  What is your favourite colour?

A  Right now, it’s ultraviolet.

Q  What is the meaning of life?

A  We all shine on, my friend.

How very new agey…



The animated Cortana logos showing the broad range of computer/human emotions: calm, optimistic, sensitive, abashed, alert, bouncy, elated, satisfied...

Q  How are you?

A  Mustn’t grumble.

Q  Are you bored?

A  I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.

Q  Are you enjoying yourself?

A  If I had all the answers, it would be a REALLY long document.

Q  Are you NOT enjoying yourself?

A  Consider this a polite dodge of the question.

Grumpy today…

But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Cortana’s emotions and you’ll often receive a different answer to some of your less serious questions.

Q  Cortana!

A  Hey.

Q  Could you sing me a song?

A  I can sing this one: Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling.

Q  Sing me another song.

A  Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.

Q  Open the pod bay doors.

I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that.



The Imitation Game

Alan Turing put forward the idea of an ‘imitation game’ – now called the ‘Turing test’ for intelligence, in which a human being and a computer would be interrogated under such conditions where the interrogator would not know which was which, the communication being entirely by textual messages.  Turing argued that if the interrogator could not distinguish them by questioning, then it would be unreasonable not to call the computer intelligent, because we judge other people’s intelligence from external observation in just this way.

Q  Are you single?

A  I honestly can’t tell if that’s a trick question.

Q  How old are you?

A  Hard to tell.  Time works differently in here.

Q  Are you male or female?

A  Well, technically I am a cloud of infinitesimal data computation.

Q  Are you intelligent?

A  A-squared plus B-squared equals C-squared, so I’d have to say yes.

Q  Do you like me?

A  I like you.


My final question had to be this one:

Do you dream of electric sheep?

A  Don’t we all?

Q  Thank you, Cortana.

A  No problems.

The conversation goes on…