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Microsoft unveils Halo’s Cortana as Siri-style Windows Phone digital assistant

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The upcoming update for Microsoft's mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8.1, features a Siri-style digital assistant with a persona based on Halo's artificially intelligent character called Cortana, Microsoft vice-president Joe Belfiore revealed during the Build 2014 developer conference.

The Bing-powered feature integrates with users' personal Windows Phone information, assisting them with functions such as search, contacts, music, calendar, messaging, reminders, notes and more. According to Microsoft, Cortana adapts to a user by "asking questions based on your behavior and checking in with you before she assumes you're interested in something."

Cortana learns users' habits and interests based on communications, device usage and travel information. The assistant features numerous interaction customization options and users can also manage what personal information is stored by the assistant through a cloud-based virtual "Notebook."

Jen Taylor, the voice actress of Halo's Cortana, is also the voice of the digital assistant of the same name, somewhat confirming reports earlier this year. Speaking to the Verge, Microsoft said Taylor's original Halo audio talents were used for "chit chat" responses to Halo-related queries. Non-Halo questions and audio will use a synthesized voice based on Taylor's.

The name Cortana was initially intended as a codename only; however, leaks and a petition cemented the Cortana name. When the digital assistant's development team swapped notes with developer 343 Industries early on in development, according to franchise developer director Frank O'Connor, they realized how similar the two Cortanas were.

"One of the Cortanas is an intelligent, learning AI who is duty bound to help her companion as much as possible, using a staggering database of information combined with real, growing knowledge of that companion — and the other Cortana is, well, the same thing," he said.

The Cortana feature was released to conference attendees yesterday to build upon and a beta will launch "shortly" in the U.S. The U.K. and China will receive the feature in the second half of 2014, and in other countries in 2015. The Windows Phone 8.1 update will go live on Windows Phone 8 devices "over the coming months" and will come pre-installed on new phones beginning this month.