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Steve Martin vs. Cortana: Why Microsoft’s virtual assistant stumped the legendary comedian

stevemartinActor, comedian, author and musician Steve Martin is a loyal Windows 10 user. He live-tweeted his upgrade to the latest Microsoft operating system last summer — complete with green ooze coming out of his USB ports, a smoking printer, and finally a hologram of Bill Gates in his office.

But based on this tweet yesterday, Martin is still having a hard time figuring out Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-activated virtual assistant in Windows 10.

Dear Satan, when I say to Cortana “open devices and printers,” thank you for it going to a webpage about how to open devices and printers.

— Steve Martin (@SteveMartinToGo) June 22, 2016

We ran our own test this morning, in the video below, and confirmed that’s exactly what Cortana does when given that command — opening a webpage about how to open devices and printers in the Windows control panel. The problem is that the overall category in the Windows 10 control panel is called “Devices,” not “Devices and Printers.” Within the Devices category is a sublevel for “printers and scanners.”

Cortana does do the right thing when told to “Open Devices.” However, our follow-up request for Cortana to “Open Printers” instead returned a list of five nearby printing facilities.

It might be tempting to say that Steve Martin is saying it wrong, echoing the late Steve Jobs’ advice to iPhone 4 users who were holding their phones in a way that interfered with their cellular reception.

But of course, the right answer is that Microsoft and other technology companies still have a lot of room to improve when it comes to natural language inputs. Virtual assistants need to be able to interpret imprecise commands accurately if they’re to be adopted widely.

Microsoft isn’t commenting on Martin’s tweet, but with more than 650 retweets and 2,000 likes as of this posting, it is no doubt a topic of conversation this morning in Redmond, as a high-profile demonstration of a way for Cortana to improve.

Update: As noted by a reader, Dona Sarker, leader of the Windows Insider program, invited Steve Martin to join the program in a follow-up tweet.

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