Will using AI make Microsoft Word better? We’re going to find out.

Will using AI make Microsoft Word better? We’re going to find out.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during the company’s Ignite Spotlight event in Seoul, South Korea, on November 15, 2022. | SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Microsoft and Google are rolling out AI features to write your memos and emails for you. But they’re far from perfect.

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 a short prompt or summarize meeting recordings.

Copilot runs on the same underlying AI technology that powers the buzzy viral chatbot ChatGPT, and is being tested now with a few business partners ahead of a wider release to all users in the “coming months,” according to the company.

An image showing Copilot creating a PowerPoint presentation based on a simple prompt.

“Today we are at the start of a new era of computing,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a livestreamed announcement on Thursday. Nadella said Microsoft’s new AI products will “remove the drudgery of our daily tasks and jobs, freeing us to rediscover the joy of creation.”

While ChatGPT captured the world’s attention in recent months, Microsoft’s moves stand to make this exciting and controversial technology even more mainstream. By integrating it into Office 365, Microsoft will put generative AI tools in front of its more than 1 billion users, potentially reshaping how wide swaths of the global workforce communicate with each other. Google, which is fiercely competing with Microsoft on bringing AI to the masses, announced a similar integration of AI productivity tools into its Workspace suite of apps, including Gmail and Google Docs.

While the new tools are full of potential to save people time by streamlining mundane tasks — everything from summarizing meeting notes to crunching numbers in spreadsheets — AI technology is also filled with shortcomings. At the very least, it will take a lot of practice and human oversight to use this new generation of AI-powered software well.

Microsoft executives acknowledged the limits of their new Copilot tools in Thursday’s demo.

“Sometimes Copilot will get 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 showcased how the software will let people use natural language, combined 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 genuinely impressive examples of this. There’s a feature that can figure out 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 through emails in Outlook to highlight what you might want to read.

You’ll also be able to ask a new virtual office assistant for help. The chatbot pulls from the AI models, Microsoft 365 apps, and users’ personal data, including their calendars, documents, meetings, and contacts. One demo video Microsoft released on Thursday showed an example of a user asking the chatbot to prepare them for an upcoming meeting. The AI-powered assistant responded with a bulleted list of project and personnel updates, organized by topic — for example, “team updates: Matthew returned from paternity leave” and “sales updates: a new contract was finalized.”

How all of this works in the real world will depend on how well users adapt to the new AI features. Microsoft is rolling out Copilot to a small subset of customers for now and has yet to announce the timing of a wide release.

There’s no denying that day-to-day office work is full of tedium. Not many people relish 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 like its name Copilot suggests, Microsoft is pitching its tool as an assistant — perhaps an unreliable one — who’s very good at some things but who will need quite a bit of hand-holding. Like using ChatGPT to write cover letters, enlisting Copilot to take over aspects of office work will likely require lots of guidance, edits, and oversight. The new tool can pull information from your existing files, so it’s not flying blind, but it’s still important to read over and fact-check what Copilot writes.

In other words, using Copilot will become a skill you have to learn. It’s not dissimilar to how you had to learn how to use Excel or Word or PowerPoint. Rather than needing to look up Excel formulas or having a good eye for design, asking Copilot to do these things will require you to learn how to talk to Copilot in a certain way, understanding the correct language for prompts as well as the system’s limitations. That will presumably be easier than acing PowerPoint, but just how much easier remains to be seen.

Interestingly, the necessity for something like Copilot also shows some of the shortcomings of Microsoft’s existing tools. Copilot helps people make more use of the technology Microsoft already has that can be too complicated 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. “Copilot unlocks the other 90 percent.”

But it would be foolish to think that AI-powered apps from Microsoft and Google are already good enough to take away white-collar office jobs. At best, these tools can help office workers do their work more quickly or brainstorm new ideas. As we’ve seen with ChatGPT’s public struggles — from how it can get simple questions like movie times wrong to how its tone can quickly devolve from friendly assistant to unhinged jilted lover — even the most advanced AI apps can still mess up a lot.

Microsoft’s new tools are likely no different. Even from the polished demos of Copilot, it was apparent that the average user will need to adjust the AI’s output to make sure it’s appropriate to send to their boss.

And there are bigger concerns than looking silly in front of your manager: Researchers have raised red flags that generative AI tools can output sexist, racist, or politically biased content. From a privacy perspective, tech companies will use the data they’re collecting about users to train these AI systems. It didn’t help those concerns when Platformer reported this week that Microsoft laid off its ethics and society team, which was responsible for raising concerns about the rollout of new AI products.

In response to a question from Vox about concerns regarding its ethics and society team being eliminated, Microsoft said that it has “hundreds of people working on these issues across the company, including dedicated responsible AI teams that continue to grow.”

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, in order to get feedback and improve the product.

Inevitably, the fact that Microsoft and Google are now racing to put out AI-powered office software raises some questions about the nature of the work itself. These new AI tools, in theory, will take away some of the duller aspects of work. Microsoft executives employed words like “drudgery” again and again throughout the presentation. But why are people doing such dull work to begin with? And how much value are those chores actually adding to the world?

It’s also possible that using AI to create more emails and slides will just create more drudgery for the person having to read them. But that’s not how Microsoft wants you to think about it.

“Copilot separates the signal from the noise and gives you hours of time back,” said Microsoft’s Chauhan. But what if it ends up allowing you to just create more noise?

One of the major shortcomings of ChatGPT is that it can be mediocre and verbose. When you use it to write an essay or draft a story, some users have complained that it gives you B-level student work. In a professional setting, that means that if someone wants to make that B-level work better, they’ll need to spend time editing it.

Until more people try them, it’s too soon to say whether these 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 good old human beings.

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