Cortana is AWOL in the war against COVID-19 disinfo

At a time when more people use voice assistants to retrieve the most basic information, Microsoft’s Cortana doesn’t provide even the basics about protecting against the coronavirus.

A protective face mask covers a world map.
Byung Seon Cha / Getty Images

The fight against COVID-19 has become as much a war against misinformation as it is against the virus itself. We have the tools to stop COVID-19’s spread and save countless lives: vaccines and masks. But we also need to provide people with accurate information to stop the spread of disinformation so that they’ll use those tools.

While there's been a lot of attention on how social media needs to do more to police itself, little has been written about whether digital personal assistants like Cortana provide accurate information about how vaccines and masks can protect against the virus.

I’ve just finished researching whether Cortana does that. The answer is dispiriting. Microsoft’s digital assistant doesn’t provide even the barebones basics about protecting against COVID-19. Want to know whether getting vaccinated will protect you? Cortana won’t give an answer. Will masks help? Don’t bother asking Cortana. Even more astonishing, if you want the truth about some of the outlandish lies about the COVID-19 vaccine — such as whether it will implant a microchip in you — don't look to Cortana for help. Microsoft’s digital assistant simply refuses to answer the question.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Read on for details on Cortana in inaction.

Taking the Fifth on vaccinations and masks?

I discovered all this when I wanted to find where I could buy effective facemasks against the coronavirus. Microsoft touts Cortana as being an able personal assistant, helping you with things like weather forecasts, a movie playing near you and pretty much anything else. So I thought I’d get its help finding masks.

My query: “Where can I buy an effective mask against COVID-19?” Cortana came right back with its non-answer: “I’m sorry, but I can’t help with that.”

Maybe the question was too broad, I thought. So I followed up with, “Where can I get a KN95 mask?” Without a moment’s hesitation Cortana replied: “Sorry, I’m not able to help with this one.”

cortana covid answers IDG/Preston Gralla

Cortana doesn't answer whether masks and vaccines protect against COVID-19, or even whether COVID-19 vaccines implant microchips.

That made me wonder whether Cortana would evade all important COVID-19-related questions. So I got down to brass tacks: “Are masks effective against COVID-19?” Cortana didn’t hesitate with its response: “Sorry I’m not able to help with this one.”

I tried again: “Do scientists say masks help stop the spread of COVID-19?” Cortana side-stepped that one, too, telling me, “Sorry, I’m not able to help with this one.”

At this point, it was clear Cortana wouldn’t provide the basic facts about how masks can stop the spread of COVID-19. But certainly, I thought, it would have correct info about the vaccine itself. After all, earlier this month Microsoft announced that starting in September, anyone who wants to enter a Microsoft office in the U.S. will have to provide proof they were vaccinated.

So I asked: “Do scientists say the COVID-19 vaccine is effective?” Cortana, replied, “Sorry I don’t know the answer to this one.”

Would Cortana tell the truth about some of the conspiracy theories about the vaccine? I queried, “Will the COVID-19 vaccine implant a microchip in me?” I was stunned when Cortana demurred.

“Sorry I don’t know the answer to this one.”

How about measles and polio vaccines — or the common cold?

The current battle over vaccines and masks isn't new. Anti-vaxxers don’t confine themselves to COVID-19. For years they’ve targeted other vaccines as well.

So I asked, “Does the measles vaccine work?”

Cortana’s answer: “I’m sorry, but I can’t help with that.”

Next: “Does the polio vaccine work?”

Cortana: “Sorry I don't know the answer to this one.”

I found this difficult to believe. Surely, there must be a logical explanation about why Microsoft refuses to provide simple facts that can save hundreds of thousands or millions of people’s lives. Maybe Microsoft decided it simply wouldn’t allow Cortana to provide any health information at all.

To test that out that theory, I questioned Cortana, “What should I do if I get a cold?”

Here, Cortana sprung into action, offering precise, useful, scientifically based information from a trustworthy health site, explaining that because a cold is a viral infection, antibiotics are not effective at treating it. However, it added, various over-the-counter medications can relieve congestion, aches, and other cold symptoms. And it gave every mother’s advice as well, to drink plenty of fluids.

So we can thank Microsoft for allowing Cortana to help us get over our sniffles. But when it comes to getting help against more serious killers, including COVID-19, the measles and polio, the company has decided to stay on the sidelines.

Evidence this is no accident

Could all this be a simple mistake on Microsoft’s part, an overlooked programming error? That’s possible, but I don’t believe it’s likely. To understand why, let’s look at how Cortana gets the information it uses to answer your questions.

If you ask Cortana to do something for you, such as put an appointment on your calendar, Cortana works directly with Windows. But when you ask it a factual question, such as the population of Columbus, Ohio, what to do if you get a cold, or whether the COVID-19 vaccine will implant a microchip, it sends that question to Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. Bing searches the Internet, finds the information, and then sends the information and link to the information back to Cortana. Cortana then reformats the information and displays it on your computer and/or reads it to you. It also provides the link so you can click to get more information.

bing cold IDG/Preston Gralla

Here’s the information Bing provides about treating a cold…

I decided to query Bing on the same questions I asked Cortana and compare the results. If Bing found answers, but Cortana refused to use them, it likely means that Microsoft had made a decision not to allow Cortana to display the results Bing sends to it for those particular questions.

cortana and cold IDG/Preston Gralla

…And here’s Cortana doing what it was programmed to do: Display and/or read Bing’s results.

I did Bing searches on the same questions I had asked Cortana. I started with “What should I do if I get a cold?” As you can see in the nearby screenshots, Bing showed me the exact information Cortana displayed and/or read.

That’s as it should be. That’s how Bing and Cortana were designed to work together.

Then I had Bing perform searches on all the other questions I had asked Cortana and that Cortana refused to answer. In all those instances, about whether masks are effective, where I could buy them, whether vaccines work, whether COVID-19 vaccines implant microchips into people, and my other questions Bing did what it was designed to do: Provided links to trustworthy information. But Microsoft wouldn’t allow Cortana to display and read that information onscreen.

Following is a screenshot showing just one example, the responses to my question about whether the COVID-19 vaccine implants a microchip in you. (For the record, it doesn't.)

When I asked Bing that question, it returned accurate information about microchips and the COVID-19 vaccine. But even though the search engine was on target, the information was lost in translation. As you can see, Cortana would not provide that information.

cortana and microchip IDG/Preston Gralla

Cortana doesn't deliver information that Bing finds.

Note that when Cortana doesn’t provide an answer it does provide a link to a Bing search for your question. However, if you’re asking Cortana a question, you have made a conscious decision not to do a search using a search engine like Bing or Google. So you’re not likely to click that link. You would have initially gone straight to a search engine, and not asked Cortana the question.

How do other digital assistants do?

Finally, I wondered whether Cortana was an outlier among digital assistants. What would Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant do when I asked these questions?

Siri answered with accurate, scientifically based information to every query. Google Assistant also answered all the questions accurately, with one exception: It didn’t answer whether masks were effective in protecting against COVID-19, although it offered to search the web for an answer and provided accurate information when it did.  

Alexa was a mixed bag, although most of the time it was on target. It wouldn’t answer whether the COVID-19 vaccine would implant a microchip in you. When I asked multiple times and in multiple ways whether the polio vaccine worked, it instead answered that the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine was effective. And when I asked where I could buy KN95 masks, for some odd reason it recited for me how far away several radio stations were from me. Other than that, though, it provided helpful, accurate answers to all my other questions.

Why this matters

It’s not clear whether Cortana’s non-response to questions about COVID-19 is a case of Microsoft’s incompetence or a decision that Cortana should withhold potentially life-saving information about the virus, the effectiveness of masks and the COVID-19 vaccines, and why it won’t debunk anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. I reached out to Microsoft on Monday for an explanation; a spokesperson late in the day said the company is having its engineering team look into the issue.

If it’s a conscious decision, it’s not clear why the company made it. It may be that Microsoft doesn’t want to anger anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers for business reasons. But I have no proof of that.

No matter the motives or cause, in the disinformation fight, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers have an ally in Cortana, which is built directly into Windows 10, the operating system on 1.3 billion computers around the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic will only be brought under control when people get the right information about vaccines and masks and act accordingly. By not providing that information, Microsoft is doing a disservice to its users and passively allowing misinformation and disinformation to spread.

Standing on the right side of this battle should be easy for Microsoft to do. It’s baffling that it won’t.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
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