Nobody is going to ask Cortana to talk to Alexa

The future of conversational AI is not a league of anthropomorphic voice assistants that we address by name to handle our problems. We will not unlock our iPhones and ask for Alexa when we need to dim our lights. We will not ask Alexa through our Echo to ask Siri to play a song. Asking your personal assistant for what amounts to a warm intro to another assistant is absolute lunacy.

Amazon and Microsoft announced yesterday that they would be partnering to make their voice assistants accessible, in just this way, on each others devices. On paper the deal makes a lot of sense — Amazon and Microsoft are not nearly as competitive with each other as Apple and Google, and Amazon can augment Microsoft’s weaknesses and vice versa.

Cortana has great enterprise integrations while Alexa is ideal for media and e-commerce. But if anyone at either of these companies thinks the average user is following which requests are more likely to land with Cortana versus Alexa, they have officially drunk too much of their own Kool-Aid.

Of course, I don’t actually think the point of this deal is to enable Echo owners to talk to Cortana. While Cortana is generally considered a very well-built personal assistant, its usage (along with everyone else’s) has sunk under Alexa.

Microsoft is probably looking to increase Cortana’s usage with this partnership — Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said pretty much the same in his statement on the matter, emphasizing that, “Ensuring Cortana is available for our customers everywhere and across any device is a key priority for us.”

But what could Amazon Alexa be after if it is are already the most used? Reza Zadeh, an adjunct machine learning professor at Stanford University and founder of computer vision startup Matroid, thinks it could be search and knowledge graph data.

Microsoft Bing is already the default search provider for Amazon Alexa. And Alexa’s key deficiency in the market right now is its inability to execute searches and answer questions.

“Being the default search provider doesn’t mean it has access to everything at Bing,” Zadeh, who also was a former technical advisor to Microsoft and a Google employee, noted. “Amazon wants more access to the web search engine’s internals, not just the basic API, which actually anyone can get.”

From Microsoft’s perspective, things are much simpler — it is looking to make money. Bing is optimized to make money from advertising. The more traffic it gets, the better it can target, serve results and convince advertisers to hand over ad dollars.

“Microsoft is good with anything that gets them additional query volume because it makes their search engine better,” Zadeh added.

There’s really no way to know if this was a part of the Amazon-Microsoft partnership. An alternative theory would be that this is just marketing puffery, but I’m inclined to think that Bezos is smarter than that.

Bezos knows there won’t be one AI to rule them all, and he also knows that an optimal network of conversational AIs will be able to automatically distribute across AI agents. Unfortunately, we’re really nowhere even close to seeing this happen.

If we assume this is a trade of traffic for access, it seems unlikely that either company would keep this relationship going for the long haul. Amazon is going to need to get itself together as fast as possible to maintain its footing in the market. That will mean finding a way to build the most robust knowledge graph and search capabilities it can, on its own. And equally, Microsoft can’t lean on suburban homebodies with Echos to drive traffic.