‘They were all dumb as a rock’: Microsoft’s CEO slams voice assistants like Alexa and his own company’s Cortana as A.I. is poised to take over

March 6, 2023, 5:58 PM UTC
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Generative artificial intelligence is the new talk of the town in the tech world as an arms race for A.I. dominance kicks off. Google and Microsoft are leading the way and currently testing their own A.I.-powered search engine assistants before a wider public release. And according to some of the industry’s leading players, these new products are leaps and bounds ahead of the at-home assistants we’re used to.

The A.I. models being developed at Microsoft and Google could have major implications for the workplace and medicine, but A.I.-assisted search engines will likely also have major applications for our everyday life. People have already toyed with OpenAI’s ChatGPT to help curate recipes, travel itineraries, and music playlists.

Those chatbots also represent a major departure from the voice-powered home assistants tech companies have been trying to push for years, according to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who does not look back fondly on the trend in tech first popularized a decade ago by Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.

“They were all dumb as a rock,” Nadella told the Financial Times last month in statements reported by the outlet Saturday.

Microsoft had its own foray into virtual assistant technology when it launched Cortana in 2014, but Nadella said Microsoft’s attempt, as well as those made by other tech companies, were simply unable to live up to the hype.

“Whether it’s Cortana or Alexa or Google Assistant or Siri, all these just don’t work. We had a product that was supposed to be the new front-end to a lot of [information] that didn’t work,” he told the FT.

Tech’s passing trends

It was hard to stay away from the hype behind virtual assistants 10 years ago. Virtual assistants were everywhere in award-winning and popular movies; smartphones and laptops came readily equipped with Siri or OK Google; and the ability to have a direct, back-and-forth conversation with a robot added an unprecedented layer of personalization and familiarity with technology.

The hype was real, as Amazon reportedly sold 100 million Alexa-equipped devices by 2019, and the interest translated to fast-tracked expansion and ambitious hiring by tech companies focused on developing virtual assistants. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of Amazon jobs developing Alexa and the company’s Echo device increased from around 1,000 to 5,000.

Nadella himself declared that “bots are the new apps” in a 2016 keynote speech outlining how Microsoft’s Cortana could be used as a digital assistant, although Cortana always occupied a relatively small share of the virtual assistant market, as the company was unable to keep up with Google and Apple’s advantage in pre-installed features. Microsoft eventually removed Cortana’s mobile app from Apple and Android phones in 2021, pivoting to integrate the product with Microsoft 365, the company’s suite of workplace productivity tools.

But Microsoft may have actually gotten a head start on its competitors in scaling back its virtual assistant attempts, as even the companies that found early success in the space are realizing that the trend could be on its way out.

Alexa and other parts of Amazon’s hardware department were major targets of the company’s plans to cut 18,000 jobs that kicked off in January. The layoffs were part of Amazon CEO Andy Jassy’s larger vision to cut expenses amid slowing profits for the company and a cloudy economic outlook for the tech sector at large.

And it isn’t just Amazon. ChatGPT’s success could make virtual assistants of the past largely obsolete as A.I.-powered search engines threaten to achieve things Alexa could only dream of. 

Last week, OpenAI announced it was making ChatGPT and Whisper, a voice recognition software, available for companies to integrate with their own apps, in a bid to monetize the product. Companies including Snapchat parent Snap, Instacart, and Shopify are already using ChatGPT in their products. Last month, Microsoft announced it would integrate its A.I.-powered chatbot with its Bing mobile app, meaning iPhone and Android users will be able to interact with A.I. directly from their phones.

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