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Cortana is AWOL in the war against Covid-19 disinfo

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.

Credit: Michael Homnick

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.

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