How Microsoft Cortana will run your entire office by 2020

Cortana is going to start helping us all stay more productive.

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Artificial intelligence is not just a trending topic or a fad. Major companies like Google (with the new Assistant bot in the Allo messaging app) and now Microsoft are focusing their efforts on automations meant to take most of the legwork out of our daily business productivity chores.

This week, Microsoft unveiled several new powerful features in their Office suite that provide a hint of how things will work in the future. My prediction? Someday, these automations will become more fully realized and personified in Microsoft Cortana.

First, here’s some background on the current state of productivity. In one demo, Microsoft showed how you can build a PowerPoint presentation or Sway brochure in a few clicks. One example had to do with some slides for an electric car. You type in a few keywords or a phrase, and the slides magically pop up with images and text you can edit. It’s impressive because of how quickly it works and that the design is actually really useful and professional-looking. These additions roll out next week.

Another demo had to do with the Maps feature in Excel, available later this year. You select a few cells in your spreadsheet, and in seconds you can create a geographic visualization that’s easily as useful, powerful, and graphically pleasing as something you’d make in a tool used by a data scientist. Microsoft noted how the Maps feature uses Bing Maps and can show visualizations down to the county and zip code level. It’s like creating a CNN political chart with a few clicks.

I’m particularly interested in the new MyAnalytics tool, which used to be called Delve Analytics. Although Microsoft has not added the ability to put a dollar value on meetings (yet), the tool shows your personal productivity. You can find out, for example, that you tend to check email in Outlook during a meeting, so you might want to skip that meeting next time. And, you can determine that you are still working after hours and need to hone it back a bit.

These features don’t work with Cortana today, and Microsoft has stayed a bit coy about how Cortana will evolve over time. For now, she’s like a search assistant or a bot that can remind you about a meeting. Someday, she’ll work much more like the Tell Me feature in Office. If you haven’t used this search box, you can type anything and see how to accomplish a task within Office. It’s handy because it parses the text for you and leads you to the answer you need.

Cortana will take over for Tell Me someday. You’ll talk to the bot and tell her you want to create a presentation for the shareholder meeting or a brochure for your startup. Like MyAnalytics, she’ll know you have been working in Excel the past few days and offer to create some of the slides with your financial data. You’ll dictate the bullet points. She’ll know to use a color scheme that matches your company logo. (In the latest versions of PowerPoint and Sway available as an update next week, the apps can identify and match colors in your slides or brochure.) She’ll even know how to correct your wording, a capability that is already in Microsoft Word called the Editor. Cortana will know if you are talking in passive voice and correct your wording on the fly. She’ll fact check what you say, and offer to use stronger verbs.

But I believe Cortana will someday run your entire office. How will that work? The hint here is in MyAnalytics. Today, this productivity analyzer can show you how many hours you’ve spent checking email or sitting in meetings listening to your boss drone on for hours. Eventually, as a Microsoft rep noted to me, the tool could be expanded to help with the entire office. You will eventually be able to find out how many hours everyone has spent in meetings and checking email, and it could expand (as the rep noted) to analyzing Skype videoconferences and Word documents.

Cortana will step in here as well. You will ask questions about who is in the office, when is the best time to meet, and who has the most expertise with product design or fixing the copier. This will not be based on you adding information to a database that feeds the A.I, assistant. It will know who has the expertise based on what they say in emails and Word documents, their web searches, and their credentials. Cortana, in many ways, will become more like her namesake in the Halo franchise. (If you don’t think that’s the eventual goal, wait around a few decades.)

I’m excited about the potential with this A.I. assistant and how she will help us in our daily work. We’ll type in documents less, we won’t have to learn how to use complex data visualization apps, we’ll be able to focus on tougher problems in the office and not who has a conference room booked. I don’t expect our productivity to suddenly go much, much higher; we’ll be working on different projects and letting the assistant do some of the boring work in the office and the boring tasks.

Do you agree? Do you think this could happen by 2020? Post in comments if you feel this will happen even sooner, much later, or maybe not at all.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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