It's easy to make--and break--promises over email. But now an update to Microsoft's virtual assistant, Cortana, will make it harder to shirk those responsibilities.
Windows users can already have Cortana remind them about important tasks. Now, thanks to some machine learning smarts borrowed from Microsoft Research, the Halo-born assistant will automatically create reminders for any commitments it finds in their emails. It's basically the modern equivalent to having Jiminy Cricket read over someone's shoulder and make them feel bad when they fail to follow through on something they said they would do.
"Cortana does all the work in the background making this helpful feature incredibly easy to use," Microsoft said in its announcement. "To get started, simply send emails as you would normally and when you’ll do something, Cortana will recognize that and save the details in a suggested reminder for you. If you’ve specified a deadline in the email, Cortana will ping you before it’s due and save it in the action center. Other suggested reminders will be in the Cortana home. No need to copy her on the email or change how you do things today, she will adapt to you."
Members of the Windows Insider program got a sneak peek at this update in January. Microsoft said it's made some improvements, "like the ability to link to the email that the reminder is coming from and notifications ahead of a deadline," based on that feedback. The company also said it "worked to improve [its] models for identifying the commitments you’ve made so Cortana’s suggestions are even more accurate" since that January preview.
The feature will probably help some people. But it also highlights privacy concerns about Cortana, as we explained in 2015:
The problem with Cortana is that it goes beyond this more generally accepted level of data collection. Cortana will not only remember all of your search history, but it will also collect information on the people you know, the places you go, your calendar details, your emails, IM messages, your text messages, your phone calls, and virtually everything else you do. That's not to mention that the system sends "speech data" to Microsoft periodically. Microsoft is ambiguous as to what "speech data" is, so we don't know if it is voice recordings or some other sort of information, such as generalized statistics.
Microsoft has mollified these concerns by requiring people to give Cortana access to their communications. It's also currently restricted to Outlook and Office 365 work and school email addresses, although Microsoft said other email services would be supported "soon." The update is available to Windows 10 users in the United States with "support coming to iOS and Android in the coming weeks." Plans for an international launch were not revealed.