Computer, On: Cortana Takes Us Back to the Future

Computer, On: Cortana Takes Us Back to the Future

But there's no excuse for "Minority Report"

While evaluating the Cortana virtual digital assistant in Windows Phone 8.1, I've begun wondering how voice technology will evolve, and whether it will finally take its rightful place alongside other computing interaction techniques. Once the purview of science fiction, voice technology is finally going mainstream, and while Cortana is only step on the road to acceptance, it's a big one.

I am of course reminded of the scene in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," which I still consider a nerd classic. Scotty sits down in front of a Mac Plus—the film was released in 1986—picks up the mouse, and says, "computer, on." For nearly 30 years, that scene has generated knowing chuckles because today's computers simply aren't that usable. Or at least they weren't. As it turns out, today's computing devices are even more impressive than the computer Scotty tried to interact with.

Was it a failing of imagination in that the creators of that 30-year-old "Star Trek" movie couldn't even anticipate a future in which computers—or computing devices of any kind—would even need to be turned on? Are we really supposed to believe that in Scotty's world of the future that the artificial intelligence he deals with on the Starship Enterprise needs to boot up after a blue screen? (And this is a movie whose plot involves time traveling with a pair of gigantic humpback whales.)

The answer, of course, is no. That "computer, on" line was for the audience, who in 1986 probably would have a hard time imagining the computer experience not involving powering the device on and off. It's probably the same reason that the otherwise realistic-seeming peek at the future in "Minority Report" involves a Kinect-like computer system that's used to find future crimes, but is so backwards in other ways that the main character needs to use the futurist version of a USB memory fob to move information from one screen to another.

That's silly, but then that's because these and other fictional takes on the future only have it partially right. And we can already see the beginnings of a future in which computing isn't just hyper personal but is omnipresent.

Today, I wake up—not power up—my Xbox One by walking into the room in which the console is found and saying, "Xbox, on." Scotty would be so proud, though it should be noted that no major desktop or server OS ships with this kind of deeply integrated voice command functionality. Yet.

On the phone and other mobile devices, Apple, Google and Microsoft have in recent years taken steps to leapfrog each other with voice-based systems like Siri, Google Now, and, most recently, Cortana. And there really is a progression there, not to mention a weird adherence to the general vibe one gets from each company.

In Siri's case, it's cute and harmless but ridiculous, like the worst-tech-commercial ever in which elfish TV star Zooey Deschanel asks Siri whether it's raining ... while she's standing in a big window looking out at the rain.

With Google, it is of course that perfect combination of useful but creepy: You make an Open Table reservation and then Google Now suddenly prompts you on your phone that you should get going because there's traffic. Nice, but ... Huh?

Microsoft, as the late comer to this particular party, has had a chance to study the highs and lows of its predecessors and plot a more privacy-friendly middle ground that is still quite useful. Cortana looks like the real deal, and its ability to integrate with third party apps could very well put it over the top. I'm curious about a schedule for integrating this technology into all versions of Windows. And Xbox, of course.

Personally, I do have some reservations about voice technology, and just as I'm not a big fan of people zoning out as they stare at their phones walking around, I'm a bit worried about the constant clamor of people yakking at their phones too. But like any technology, voice control will start to make more sense when it's less a novelty and more an integrated part of our lives, one that can pick your voice out in a crowd. So instead of yelling at our phones, we can just converse normally—or, better yet, whisper.

With no offense to Scotty, of course. And that's still one of the better "Star Trek" movies.


Corrections: In the spirit of the self-flagellation I bear with every day at The New York Times, I will admit the original version of this story incorrectly described the whale in a 1980's sci-fi comedy movie as "blue whale" when it fact it was a "humpback whale." Worse, there were two whales. Oh, the horrors. --Paul

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