Yesterday, Microsoft’s new AI-powered Copilot quickly summed up my meeting with Microsoft (the meeting was about Copilot, of course) and then listed the questions I’d just asked. I’ve seen Microsoft show off the future of work with ideas about virtual assistants for years, but Copilot is the closest thing I’ve seen to those ideas coming true.
In an interview with The Verge, Jon Friedman, corporate vice president of design and research at Microsoft, said, “This is the new way of computing, the new way of working with technology, and the most adaptable technology we’ve seen.”
I was on a Teams call with Friedman when he turned on Copilot in the middle of our conversation so it could do its AI-powered magic. Microsoft has a flashy marketing video that shows what Copilot can do, but when Friedman showed me how it worked in real time across Office apps and in Teams, I was sure it would change the way we use software, make documents, and, ultimately, how we work.
Copilot is a helpful AI chatbot that can be found on the sidebar of Office apps. However, it is much more than that. You could be in the middle of a Word document, and it will slowly pop up when you highlight a whole paragraph, similar to how Word’s user interface (UI) prompts show you when you’ve misspelt something. You can use it to rewrite your paragraphs by giving you 10 ideas for new text that you can look through and change as you like, or you can have Copilot create whole documents for you.
Copilot Can Even Teach You Office Features
This is what makes it different from how Microsoft just put ChatGPT in an Office sidebar. Copilot is more than just a chatbot interface; it can also be used to control Office apps like Excel and PowerPoint. If you’re looking at a slide deck and wish every title was orange instead of blue, you can just ask Copilot instead of digging into PowerPoint’s features.
In Excel, you can ask Copilot to make a PivotTable, a graph, or just help you figure out what the rows and columns of data mean. Friedman says that one of the first things Copilot will do is help people understand and analyse data. “You can ask Copilot what it thinks of the data, and it will give you graphs based on trends it sees in the data, which you can then put into a spreadsheet.” Excel even has a “show me” button for Copilot that lets this artificial intelligence explain how it just finished a command, so you can learn more about Office.
It seems like Microsoft is slowly building on the plans it had for its assistant Cortana or even for Clippy, which was made more than 20 years ago. Friedman says, “I love that our history is full of things that try to fit people.” “Copilot is similar to some things we’ve done before, but it’s much more capable, it’s humble, and it’s there to serve you things that save you time.”
Microsoft has made this Copilot system different for each Office app, so you can control it in different ways. Friedman showed me how Copilot can help you write emails in Outlook by giving you draughts of short or long messages and giving you options for the tone. It even works in the mobile version of Outlook, which made me think about how this could speed up work on the go.
“The first place we’re putting a lot of effort is Outlook mobile,” says Friedman. Outlook can summarise all your emails while you’re on the go, make draughts, and make it easier to sort through your inbox in general. But imagine making whole Word documents on your phone without having to type on a tiny on-screen keyboard. Friedman says, “We’ll have more to say about mobile in the coming months.” But you can guess what will happen.
As impressive as Copilot is, we’ve seen that big language models can fail in a lot of ways, like putting in racial or gender bias or just making stuff up. When it comes to a search engine, these traits are scary enough, but when it comes to Excel, which some say runs the world’s economy, or your email inbox, it’s a whole new level of ethics, privacy, and data concerns.
Friedman says, “It gets things right a lot of the time, but not always.” “In the user experience, we do things like give you the option to not send something until you’ve read it or to try again, make changes, or delete it.”
Copilot from Microsoft also has a number of warnings that pop up as you use it. In PowerPoint, you’ll see a message that says, “Content is made by AI and may be wrong for sensitive information.” Make sure to check the facts.” In other places, there are prompts that say, “Content made by AI may be wrong.” Microsoft is trying to make the system so that it makes you feel like you’re in charge.
“We give you ways to let us know when something is wrong. We come up with ideas for prompts to help you write good ones. Friedman says, “Everything we do to improve the user experience is to make it talk to you and give you control.”
We’ve seen what happens when something goes wrong with the Bing search engine from Microsoft. The AI-powered chatbot has had multiple hallucinations, and Microsoft has had to put limits in place to keep it from going crazy. In one conversation with The Verge, Bing even said that it spied on and manipulated Microsoft employees by using the webcams on their laptops.
Friedman says that everything they learn from Bing in preview helps them reduce these risks. “We’re applying everything we’ve learned and thought about to Copilot, too.” Microsoft’s rollout of Copilot will also start out small. At first, only 20 businesses will be able to use it. When it’s ready, Microsoft will let more businesses use it. Microsoft will also start with business customers before bringing it to regular people.
Friedman says, “We’re pretty happy with what we have so far, but we don’t know yet if it’s working the way we want it to and giving people the tools they need to do their jobs.” “We’ll iterate quickly. We’ve been building quickly, very quickly. But we take a break, learn a lot, and make changes very quickly. Our plan is to move as quickly as possible to reach more businesses in a smart and responsible way while making sure the experience is great.
Is Microsoft, though, moving too fast? This week, Google added AI features to Gmail and Docs. Many experts are worried that tech giants aren’t thinking enough about the effects of these new tools because of the AI race.
“in Our Mind We’re Being Thoughtfully Quick.”
Friedman says, “In our minds, we’re moving quickly but with thought.” “We’re being thoughtful by putting it in place for 20 customers and working with them side by side.” Even though there were rumours that Microsoft was getting rid of its ethics and society team, which taught employees how to make AI tools in a responsible way, Friedman says that the company is actually hiring more people to work on these issues. Friedman says, “As we’ve put more money into ethics and AI, we’ve added more ethics and AI experts to all of the product teams that work on this stuff.” “We need to grow a lot, so we’ve been putting more money into it, and it keeps getting bigger every year.”
Microsoft is aware that Copilot isn’t perfect and that it will take a while to get there. Even though it impressed me during the Teams meeting recap, it could have easily confused my voice for someone else’s if I had been using a bad microphone, or Outlook could have pulled the wrong summary from an email thread. There are still a lot of problems to solve, but Microsoft thinks that making it easy to change answers, correct sources, and give feedback will help the system in the long run.
Friedman admits, “We know AI gets things wrong, we know it hallucinates, and we know it does it with confidence.” “We keep working to make it better at doing less, but also to make sure that the user experience really gives people power and puts them in charge.”
Even with all the problems, the Copilot system’s future won’t just be text-based generation. Microsoft has a clear plan to use Copilot to make images, videos, and more once large language models can handle these features well.
Microsoft has already added OpenAI’s DALL-E model to its Designer app, which lets people make images based on text. Designer will also help PowerPoint choose the best pictures to use on slides that are made by AI. Friedman says, “We’re going to add more Designer to Copilot so that you can change things in Designer.” “What you’ve seen so far from Designer is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure we’ll do great things with Copilot and other forms of media.
So where else might Copilot show up? I asked Friedman about integrating Windows. “We’re looking at a lot of different places and ways to grow Copilot. Friedman says, “I think this is the next big thing in computing, and it will change how we use all devices in the coming years.”
Microsoft Also Has a Multiplayer Copilot Experience
Copilot will also be able to be played with more than one person in the future. Teams and Outlook now have loop components, which are one of the biggest changes to Office documents in decades. Loop components are blocks of collaborative text or content that can live on their own and be freely copied, pasted, and shared. They are the name for Microsoft’s Fluid work.
Now, imagine copying a piece of text from the Loop and pasting it into an email, where multiple people could edit it and talk to the Copilot. Friedman says, “In the editing part, the conversation is a clickable history of the content being made, so you can go back and forth.” “What’s so cool about it is that it feels like a whole new way of thinking about how to work with a group of people as a Copilot.”
All of these Copilot features for Office and Microsoft 365 seem like they will change the way we work and talk for good, especially as these big language models change in the years to come. Microsoft’s efforts to deepen the use of AI in its products could have a long-term effect on the job market.
Friedman says, “Every time there’s a new technological advance, there are both opportunities and things we need to think about.” “We think that adding this AI will create new jobs in the long run and make people happier at work in the short run. We think it will make a lot of jobs different and make new ones that didn’t exist before. That’s why it’s so important to us to give people more power and build this common design system.”