On Wednesday, Microsoft and Amazon made a surprise announcement: Cortana and Alexa, their respective AI-based voice assistants, will work together.
Or, as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos succinctly put it in a tweet: "Alexa has made a new friend."
For anyone following the rise of artificial intelligence and the spread of virtual assistants into our everyday lives, this feels like a big moment.
Your home could soon be inhabited by multiple virtual beings — each already capable of talking to you — now also communicating with each other.
It sounds like science fiction. And there's no question that this will bring about some cool new experiences and functionality when it takes effect at the end of 2017.
In real life, though, it's going to be a lot longer, if ever, before this AI friendship really pays off for you, the customer. Here's why.
The big idea
The idea, say the two companies, is to play to each virtual assistant's strengths.
Microsoft claims 145 million monthly active Cortana users, and Alexa-powered Amazon Echo devices dominate the still very young market for smart speakers.
Alexa is good at (surprise, surprise) letting you shop on Amazon. And Alexa has already emerged as the central concierge for a veritable menagerie of smart home products, from smart locks to refrigerators to lightbulbs.
Microsoft, by contrast, pitches Cortana as the ideal assistant for the tech-savvy professional: It's plugged in to the Office 365 productivity suite, so it has a view into your calendar and Word and Excel documents. In the not-so-distant future, Microsoft has said, Cortana and LinkedIn will even integrate to tell you about the people in your next meeting.
Let the two AIs play together, and you get some nice benefits.
Just say "Alexa, open Cortana," or "Cortana, open Alexa," and your device will hand over control to the appropriate virtual assistant.
But there are some significant limitations, as the New York Times reports. The assistants will be walled off from each other, almost entirely. So if you're using Microsoft's Cortana on your Amazon Echo Dot, and you want to play music from your Amazon Prime account, you'll have to switch back to Alexa.
This makes strategic sense — Amazon probably doesn't want Microsoft to see its customers' shopping behavior. And Microsoft has its own data that it doesn't want Alexa accessing directly. But from a user experience perspective, it stinks. Imagine needing to ask one specific member of your household every time you want to turn on the TV, and somebody else to dim the lights.
I can't imagine that a lot of people out there will actually remember to switch between their assistants. Research released earlier in 2017 shows that while people will try lots of Alexa "skills," or apps, they don't really stick with them. And as it stands in this first version, Cortana is essentially just another Alexa skill.
Eventually, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told the New York Times, the goal is for Alexa (or Cortana) to automatically route the right question to the right assistant, without your needing to think about it. The idea is that one assistant might be for your personal life, and one for your professional life.
This is when things will really get interesting.
The long road ahead
AI interoperability is a grand idea, and something that Amazon and Microsoft will probably brag about a lot in the months and years to come.
And it's easy to understand why they're so excited.
Amazon and Microsoft both missed out on the smartphone boom, relegating them to providing apps and services for other companies' platforms. The rise of the voice assistant represents a whole new platform; a change in the status quo that both Microsoft and Amazon are hoping to exploit.
With their powers combined, it gives both assistants footholds into new markets — a vital hedge as Apple and Google go on the offensive with their own Siri and Google Assistant heading into the holiday shopping season.
Despite the shortcomings of the current Alexa-Cortana partnership, Microsoft and Amazon could be on track to solve a huge existential threat to the future of technology. The explosion of virtual assistants has set loose a slew of technologies including Alexa, Cortana, Siri, Google Assistant, Samsung Bixby, and maybe even Facebook's M, that are spreading through your home — first, with speakers, then, with voice-controlled tablets, and next, home appliances.
It means that there's going to be a war for your home: Your toaster may use a different voice assistant than your fridge, which may be incompatible with all the home entertainment system in your living room. When you say "hello" to your home, it may answer back in a veritable chorus of different voices.
That's the kind of chaotic scenario that nobody wants.
One obvious solution is to buy gadgets that support only one company's particular assistant, similar to today's iPhone or Windows ecosystems. But with the overall virtual assistant market still very much in flux, it may be a while before things settle down to the point where there are any real "safe," future-proofed options.
That makes the automatic voice assistant aggregation envisioned by Bezos the sanest way to deal with the explosion of intelligence in the living room and office. But this system will only live up to its true potential and catch on with consumers if the gang of virtual assistants are able talk to each other on their own, without too many constraints. And for now, that's still science fiction.