A Great Simian or just a Monkey

Microsoft Cortana vs IBM Watson

IBM Watson is a brain and Microsoft Cortana is a personal assistant. That is the simple conclusion of Yesterdays Cortana vs Watson (sort of) at The Conference in Malmö. My biggest surprise was that Microsoft Cortana is 100% scripted. Watson is a cognitive platform that actually could complement Cortana’s great features as personal assistant.

Currently in Malmö in Sweden, the conference The Conference (ehh) is happening and I was very much looking forward to the session Artificial Intelligence in Services. Primarily to listen to Deborah Harrison from Microsoft, since my knowledge about Cortana is limited. To summarize, Cortana was a huge disappointment to me. After listening to Deborah I posted the below tweet that described my immediate feelings about Cortana (excuse the typo).

So, Cortana is:

  • Scripted
  • Only a personal assistant
  • Personality and tone driven

As Deborah say already in the first minute of her talk (embedded at the end of the post) “Nothing is programmatic, we write it all”.

This leads me back to my recent post where I say that the future is about cognitive platforms and not about Bots (aka personal assistants).

Cognitive Platforms are the future, not Bots and AI

And to continue with the embeds, the comparison between Cortana and Watson was by Felix Segerbrecht described in a true and funny (with a touch of sexism irony included) way.

Cortana is a Personal Assistant and Watson is a Brain.

The speakers were senior and knew the topic way better than most (both speeches embedded below). Deborah Harrison from Microsoft is one of the original architects behind Cortana as well as head of the team that creates all the content that Cortana is communicating (again, Cortana is all scripted). Her talk was focused on how Cortana communicates and how she interprets different situations. It seems that Cortana is more of a Siri for the enterprise (guess that Microsoft is still enterprise focused).

Maya Weinstein is design lead at IBM Watson in New York. Maya talked to the Robot Neo (the real robot, not an app), gave the standard examples of oncology (cancer treatment) and kids education (Element Path) etc. She gave the standard variety of examples of use cases for Watson from concierge services (Connie the Concierge at Hilton Hotels as an example) to dating apps and medical examples. Naturally, Jeopardy was mentioned as well.

To put it blunt, Cortana could be built with just three Watson APIs, if you add a few more Watson could do even more, but again, I hope that does not happen, they should not compete, rather compliment each other. Watson is a cognitive platform and not a product in that way. Watson could even be the cognitive parts (aka the Brain) of a very good personal assistant (Cortana). Cortana is the UI / UX and asks Watson for help with all the cognitive parts she is asked to help her users with.

Nevertheless, it is interesting times and this is a true paradigm shift in technology and business…..and it is starting now.

We are now entering the World of Cognitive!

Maya Weinstein’s talk at The Conference in Malmö 16th of August 2016


Deborah Harrison’s talk at The Conference in Malmö 16th of August 2016

Top image is from my daughters origami book


Cognitive Platforms are the future, not Bots and AI


Augmented Intelligence instead of Artificial Intelligence


  1. First of all thanks for the insight! I wanted to see if you could elaborate more on the definition of “scriipted’ when you are referring Cortana. Also, is there any documentation out there that dives deep into the technological differences between the two? Somehting that explains how they can compliment each other? Maybe what Watson can do, but Cortana can’t and vice versa. Thanks!

    • Hi Justin, first a quick sorry for the late reply.

      It is Deborah that states that it is scripted and I interpret it as her content team is actually writing all the dialogues for Cortana, but do look at the above video to find out what exactly she said. To be fair to Microsoft in this comparison they have other cognitive solutions that are more “cognitive”, which she probably should have mentioned in her talk. Naturally there are benefits and challenges with both and I think it is a matter of company preferences which one you chose.

      I have not found a high quality analysis of the differences between Watson and MS Cognitive Services unfortunately, you can find fragmented details out there. If you have Gartner access, I assume they have written a report on it of similar.

      Most seem to state that IBM have a head start given their focus on this for so many years. MS, Google, Amazon and to some extent Facebook is in the mix as well, but for the large enterprise I would say IBM is still in the lead.

      Similarities in several areas, but a few differences I can list are the following:

      1. Retrieve and Rank
      This (in large parts) is the part of Watson that won Jeopardy. It is the API that learns & reason in a given domain (after initial teaching by domain experts). The uniqueness is definitely in the ranking part I would say. This is “the brain” and it’s capabilities to ingest, understand, learn, reason and even suggest actions / decisions (incl evidence) is impressive to say the least.

      2. Image recognition
      Watson is the only solution that has the capability to train your own classifier. This might sound as a small features, but when you think of it, it is essential for most companies to have this functionality.

      IBM also just passed Microsoft in speech recognition, with an accuracy of 5.5% fault rate. MS was at 5.9% prev. Humans are by most stated to be at 5.9% IBM claims human errors are at only 5.1%.

      Those two are from the top of my head. Given my limited knowledge of MS it is hard for me to go into details on what are the biggest benefits of their Cognitive APIs. Sorry for that.

      As you see above I have not mentioned bots or other interfaces, but focused on the cognitive parts. Bots are just another interface to the information. Some come can understand natural language and classify, some is purely scripted etc, but the power of cognitive is not in the interface, so I often try to leave that out.

      If you have further thoughts I am happy to continue the discussion.

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