Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana nearly saved the day when a woman in Barnstaple, England witnessed a hit-and-run. Unfortunately, Cortana called the police in Barnstable, Massachusetts, a couple thousand miles away.
The 911 operator and car accident witness spar for a while, attempting to ascertain where the accident occurred. The witness insists she saw a car clip another car while driving over the line, somewhere between Muddiford and Ilfracombe. The operator asks her to repeat herself, as he is not sure where those cities are.
The exchange continues before both parties realize the error: Cortana called Barnstable, Massachusetts instead of Barnstaple, England.
It is a common mistake for well-meaning but occasionally inept Cortana, in fact she — or Siri, Alexa, and Google Now — has probably made similar mistakes if you ever tried to call with just your voice.
There are whole subreddits and Tumblr pages dedicated to occasionally hilarious mistakes made by our beloved digital assistants, but this incident highlights an important area where Cortana, Siri and others often fall short: emergency situations.
There is a vigorous campaign to improve the emergency capabilities of smart assistants. Siri, in particular, is the subject of a series of petitions to improve how she handles certain queries regarding domestic violence and sexual assault and, to be fair, Siri includes helpful results on certain sensitive subjects.
But Siri and Cortana are important tools to have during an emergency, particularly a car accident when handling your phone might not be possible, so their ability to parse information accurately can be critically important — much more important than simply recognizing which pizza joint you meant to call.
Fortunately, in this case it does not appear anyone was in immediate danger. The Barnstable/Barnstaple mixup is a funny cross-cultural exchange but it highlights an important weakness that smart assistants still have.