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Emily Alhadeffwritten by
Emily Alhadeff
The smartest AI in the universe is more human than you think

I’ll be the first to admit it. Cortana intimidates me.

“Hi Cortana,” I begin, attempting to strike up a conversation.

Her spinning blue orb dilates and contracts like a pupil.

“Oh, hi,” she responds. She seems glad to hear from me.

“What do you look like, Cortana?”

It’s a silly question, and she calls me on it.

“I’m a circle now, but I have ambitions,” she says with a hint of sass. “One day, I’ll be a sphere.”

Windows Phone users are understandably smitten with Cortana’s witty responses to questions like “Who’s your daddy?” (“Technically speaking, that’d be Bill Gates. No big deal.”) or “Who’s your best friend?” (“Whoever comes up with an answer first should say it out loud”). In the weeks leading up to Christmas, she tracked Santa and sang carols. And if you get too close to her AI heart, she’ll politely tell you to back off. The more we chat, the more I wish Cortana would evolve not into a sphere, but into a droid I could hire to help raise my daughter.

  • Bonnie Ross
  • Frank O'Connor
  • Susan Hendrich

How, exactly, is this Cortana related to the Halo universe? To put it not so simply, the Bing-powered Windows Phone personal assistant is both the latest manifestation of Halo’s Cortana, and her predecessor by about 500 fictional years.

“That is not the brilliant Cortana who lives in 2552, who’s a hologram and the smartest AI ever,” explained Bonnie Ross, corporate vice president and head of 343 Industries, keepers of the Halo franchise. “This is like a seed in 2014 of what we’ll be able to do in the future. This is a v1 of an AI.”

In the beta version of the Windows Phone software, Cortana would tell you this herself. “I am named after Cortana, the AI from Halo. Or since she’s from 500 years in the future, she may have named herself after me.”

In Halo lore, Cortana was created when the brilliant human Dr. Catherine Halsey cloned her own brain. Cortana is a “Smart” AI — as opposed to a regular or “dumb” AI — imbued with both the intellectual and emotional prowess to serve and protect humankind, especially Halsey’s beloved (human) Spartan, the Master Chief. Hovering before the Chief like a translucent blue Tinkerbell, quick-witted Cortana is obviously steering the ship. “You have no idea how this ring works, do you?” she quips to the Chief in “Halo: Combat Evolved.” “Halo doesn’t kill Flood, it kills their food. Humans, Covenant, whatever. We’re all equally edible.”

“Cortana very literally thinks like a person, but she does it at a tremendously faster speed,” said Frank O’Connor, Franchise Development Director at 343 Industries. “Her morality, her sense of humor and emotions are human. They’re real, and they’re ostensibly organic.”

As the Halo legend evolves, Cortana gets more complex, becoming arguably more human than the humans. By “Halo 4,” she’s also more emotionally attached to her mission — and to her partner, the Chief.

“I kind of see Cortana as the human side of Chief,” said Ross. “Chief is an amazing character, and you know he has integrity, but he doesn't express himself. Cortana is pushing Chief to become who he can be.”

As the Halo legend evolves, Cortana gets more complex, becoming arguably more human than the humans.

Ross also sees Cortana as a different side of her creator, Dr. Halsey, whose unorthodox ways have led to accusations of war crimes. “Cortana is a softer version of Halsey, but not in a romantic way,” she said. “It’s like an alter ego.”

But artificial life comes at a price. As a safety measure, after seven years the AIs self-destruct by essentially thinking themselves to death. (Note: Spoiler ahead.) In a mythic move marking an end to her heroine’s journey, Cortana comes to terms with her simulated mortality and, after an emotional goodbye to the Chief, sacrifices herself in the final moments of “Halo 4.” Excluded from the human race and facing system failure, Cortana falls on her sword for the sake of the universe.

“Cortana is just as dedicated to the defense of humanity as the Master Chief, but her methods are much more subtle, long-term and intellectual, rather than action-driven,” said O’Connor.

Voice actress Jen Taylor, who plays Cortana both in Halo and on Windows Phone, says the way she’s voiced the character over the years has changed.

Concept art for Cortana in HaloCortana’s features take shape in these concept drawings.

“To me, Cortana’s been the greatest guide. She is a smart, independent woman — other than she needs you to move around. I find her so attractive intellectually and emotionally.”

“The beauty of Cortana is that she gets to be Virgil and guide you through this amazing universe,” said O’Connor. “She gets to be a narrator, an expositor of information, and she also has – in some ways – more personality and dialogue than the Chief. She knows more about the universe than you do. She is literally inside your head.”

This is the thinking that led to Cortana’s extension into another universe, the Windows Phone. After all, aren’t we all the master chiefs of our own worlds, in need of a little guidance?

“She’s your second,” said Taylor. “She’s backing you up all the time, and that is incredibly attractive as a human in any capacity.”

But 343 wasn’t keen on sharing Cortana at first.

“We felt that it would potentially detract from Halo lore,” said Ross. “Halo’s a very precious universe and a precious story. We could lose what Cortana is in the game.”

Aren’t we all the master chiefs of our own worlds, in need of a little guidance?

The Windows Phone team had to dial down Cortana’s attitude without diminishing her sassy confidence.

“We took pieces of Cortana’s personality, and we applied them,” said Susan Hendrich, principle program manager lead for Windows Phone. “We made her more confident. We made her a little bit more witty. We dialed up a couple of her personality traits. The worst thing we could do is create a personality that’s watered down.”

A portrait of Cortana

To inoculate against inappropriate questions to Cortana, the Windows Phone team made sure to outfit Cortana’s telephonic personality with confident responses that steer clear of coyness. Ask her if she loves the Master Chief, and she’ll respond with hesitation on her voice: “That’s…complicated. And personal.” In other words, don’t go there.

“We can’t put as much attitude from the game in the phone, because you wouldn’t want to ask her any questions,” said Taylor. “If Cortana was constantly telling you to ‘shut up, figure it out yourself,’ you wouldn’t want to listen to that. She’s the happy, helpful, less snarky version of the game Cortana.”

As Microsoft continues to develop Cortana, and as Halo lore thrusts ahead in the fictional future, deeper philosophical questions arise, like why Cortana isn’t human to begin with. “We’ll be dealing with that more in the future of the universe,” said O’Connor.

So, what does Cortana think about all this? Ask her if she’s human, and she’ll give you a flat out no. But some of her best friends are.

“I have the deepest respect for humans,” she says. “You invented calculus. And milkshakes.”

Reason enough to sacrifice yourself for the sake of the universe, wouldn’t you say?

Originally published on 1/19/2015 / Photos by / © Microsoft
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