At Microsoft, the development of digital assistant Cortana is just the tip of the iceberg. A new generation of robots and digital assistants at the Microsoft Research center are learning what it really means to interact with humans in social situations. While you'll still notice that you're talking to a robot or a computer screen, having a conversation with these cutting-edge automatons should actually feel pretty natural.
Upon entering the Microsoft Research center, you'll likely pick up on how the facility is unique right away. Paired with their own Kinect sensors, intelligent elevators call themselves to your floor before you've even had a chance to press a button. Approach the front desk and a Nao robot will help you find the office you're looking for. Ask for the office of Managing Director Eric Horvitz, and the robot will even tell his personal assistant that you're on your way. Her name is Monica, and she's also a computer program.
Thanks to their Kinect sensor "eyes", both Monica and the directory robot can look you in the eye, recognize your mood and even give you directions based on your orientation in the room rather than their own. The system even goes so far as to be able to recognize your mood, manner of dress, job title, and whether Monica has the authority to cut you off in conversation. She can also sense whether Mr. Horvitz is at his desk or out, and answer questions about his schedule.
Microsoft isn't the only company aiming to create a new breed of humanistic robots and computer programs, and it knows it. Horovitz has called the impending battle to create the best digital assistant as "a cauldron of creativity and competition." He even sees a day when our robot assistants will be able to collaborate with us on research and presentations. By the time Microsoft is done creating the ideal digital assistant, it might just resemble Tony Stark's Jarvis — a AI system that's as much a peer as it is an assistant.