Microsoft is adding new AI features to its popular apps like Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. The new set of tools, called Microsoft 365 Copilot, will let people do things like create PowerPoint decks with brief prompts or summarize meeting recordings.
Copilot works on the same underlying AI technology that powers the buzzy viral chatbot ChatGPT, and is now being tested with a few business partners before a wider rollout to all users in “the coming months,” according to company.
“Today we are at the dawn of a new era of computing,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a livestreamed announcement Thursday. Nadella said that Microsoft’s new AI products will “remove the tedium from our daily tasks and jobs, freeing us to rediscover the joy of creation.”
While ChatGPT caught the world’s attention in recent months, Microsoft’s steps have been taken to make this exciting and controversial technology more mainstream. By integrating it with Office 365, Microsoft will put generative AI tools in front of its more than 1 billion users, potentially shaping how widely global workforces interact with each other . Google, which is competing fiercely with Microsoft in bringing AI to the masses, announced a similar integration of AI productivity tools in its Workspace suite of apps, including Gmail and Google Docs.
While new tools are loaded with the potential to save people time by streamlining mundane tasks — everything from summarizing meeting notes to crunching numbers in spreadsheets — AI technology is also full of shortcomings. At the very least, it will take a lot of training and human supervision to properly use this new generation of AI-powered software.
Microsoft executives acknowledged the limitations of their new Copilot tools in Thursday’s demo.
“Sometimes Copilot gets it right,” said Microsoft corporate vice president of modern work and business applications Jared Spataro. “Other times it will be usefully wrong.”
In a 40-minute demo, Microsoft shared more details about its new Copilot tools. It showed how the software will let people use natural language, along with information it already has about you (files, emails, spreadsheets), to improve how its apps work for you. During the demo, Microsoft showed off some truly impressive examples of this. There is a feature that can learn the main topics of a meeting from a recording or transcript and another that creates attractive PowerPoint presentations based on simple prompts. Copilot can also analyze Excel data and sort Outlook emails to highlight what you want to read.
You’ll also be able to enlist the help of a new virtual office assistant. The chatbot draws from AI models, Microsoft 365 apps, and users’ personal data, including their calendars, documents, meetings, and contacts. A demo video released by Microsoft on Thursday showed an example of a user asking the chatbot to prepare them for an upcoming meeting. The AI-powered assistant responds with a bulleted list of project and personnel updates, organized by topic — for example, “team updates: Matthew is back from paternity leave” and “sales updates: a new contract was concluded.”
How this all works in the real world depends on how well users adapt to the new AI features. Microsoft is rolling out Copilot to a small subset of customers right now and has yet to announce the timing of a wide release.
There is no denying that daily work in the office is full of fatigue. Not many people enjoy the joy of summarizing meeting notes, crunching numbers in spreadsheets, or drafting boilerplate business memos. Microsoft’s pitch is that you should let AI do it for you.
But as its name Copilot suggests, Microsoft is building its tool as an assistant — perhaps an unreliable one — that’s great at some things but requires a little hand-holding. Like use ChatGPT to write cover letters, enlisting Copilot to take over aspects of office work will likely require a lot of guidance, editing, and supervision. The new tool can pull information from your existing files, so it’s not flying blind, but it’s still important to re-read and review what Copilot writes.
In other words, using Copilot will be a skill you have to learn. It’s no different than how you have to learn how to use Excel or Word or PowerPoint. Instead of looking up Excel formulas or having a good eye for design, asking Copilot to do these things will require you to learn how to communicate with Copilot in a certain way, understanding the correct language for signals as well as system limitations. That’s probably easier than acing PowerPoint, but just how easy remains to be seen.
Interestingly, the need for something like Copilot also highlights some of the shortcomings of Microsoft’s existing tools. Copilot helps people make better use of technology that Microsoft already has that might be too complex for people to fully use, according to Sumit Chauhan, corporate vice president of the office product group at Microsoft.
“The average person uses less than 10 percent of what PowerPoint can do,” Chauhan said during Thursday’s presentation. “The copilot unlocks the other 90 percent.”
But it would be foolish to think that AI-powered apps from Microsoft and Google will be enough to eliminate white-collar office jobs. At best, these tools can help office workers do their work faster or brainstorm new ideas. As we’ve seen in ChatGPT’s public struggles — from how it can get simple questions like movie times wrong to how its tone quickly shifts from friendly assistant to unhinged jilted lover — even the most advanced AI apps can still mess up badly.
Microsoft’s new tools are likely no different. Even from Copilot’s polished demos, it’s clear that the average user will need to adjust the AI’s output to ensure it’s appropriately sent to their boss.
And there’s a bigger concern than looking like a fool in front of your manager: Researchers have raised red flags that generative AI tools could be churning out sexist, racist, or politically biased content. From a privacy perspective, tech companies will use the data they collect about users to train these AI systems. It didn’t help with concerns about when Platformer reported this week that Microsoft has removed its ethics and social group, responsible for raising concerns about the launch of new AI products.
In response to a question from Vox about concerns about ethics and the social group being removed, Microsoft said it has “hundreds of people working on these issues across the company, including dedicated responsible AI teams that keep growing.”
Given these limitations and concerns, it makes sense that Microsoft is doing a small rollout of these new tools. The company is currently testing it with 20 corporate customers, including eight Fortune 500 enterprises, to get feedback and improve the product.
Inevitably, the fact that Microsoft and Google are now racing to release AI-powered office software raises some questions about the nature of the work itself. These new AI tools will, in theory, take away some of the dull aspects of work. Microsoft executives use words like “tired” repeatedly throughout the presentation. But why do people do such dull work in the first place? And how much value do those activities really add to the world?
It’s also possible that using AI to create more emails and slides will only create more fatigue for the person who has to read them. But that’s not what Microsoft wants you to think.
“Copilot separates the signal from the noise and gives you the time back,” says Microsoft’s Chauhan. But what if it lets you create more noise?
One of the main shortcomings of ChatGPT is that it can be moderate and verbose. When you use it to write an essay or draft a story, some users complained this gives you a B-level student work. In a professional setting, that means that if someone wants to make that B level better, they’ll need to spend time editing it.
Until more people try them out, it’s too early to say whether the new AI-powered office tools offer a net positive. But early evidence points to the idea that Microsoft’s new suite of AI tools is called “Copilot” and not “Autopilot” for a reason — it still needs a lot of guidance from the good old folks.