Draw nearer, citizens, for the dawn of tomorrow is upon us and it powered by artificial intelligence. In the wake of the hype surrounding ChatGPT, Microsoft has upped the ante with the release of Microsoft 365 Copilot, which intends making Office 365 and related applications smarter, easier to use, and…well, intelligent. On the face of it, what a great idea. Natural language interfaces using the applications most of us are familiar with as everyday tools. The examples provided by Microsoft in its promotional materials make this a must have: who among us enjoys making a PowerPoint presentation? Arguably, a fate worse than the infamous ‘death by’. With 365 Copilot, just ask your computer and it does the lot for you.
Not, it should be stressed, perfectly. Recently, an associate asked about ChatGPT and its ability to do the job of a writer; my answer was simply, ‘you quickly discover the limitations of software when you are a specialist in your field’. This is absolutely the case with most AI (which is, really, software. And we have been using increasingly complex software for a long time, with the Arthur C Clarke comment applying here that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’).
Copilot isn’t intended to get everything right. It is instead intended to get it ‘mostly’ or at least ‘partially’ on the way. Need a letter? ‘Hey Copilot, please write a letter presenting the contents of my PowerPoint to the legal department’. Smash bang, there’s the letter drafted up and good to go.
Another feature Microsoft is talking up with Copilot is helping people get more out of the software we already own. Most of us use a tiny fraction of the capabilities of Microsoft 365. That’s mainly because there’s so much functionality built in there, rather than us not needing it: we just don’t know it’s there, or even if we do, often we cannot find the feature we want. Ask Copilot; it won’t just find the feature, it will probably use it for you anyway.
On the launch of Copilot 365, Microsoft boss Satya Nadella described it as the start of a new era of computing and ‘the next generation of AI’. “We're accustomed to AI powering experiences ranging from search to social media, serving recommendations. That version is so second nature that we don't even realise or recognise it. We've been using AI on autopilot and now with this next generation of AI we're moving from autopilot to copilot.”
So now you know what inspired the name of the new product.
Microsoft provided a minor peek under the bonnet, too, explaining that Copilot is more than just connecting ChatGPT to Microsoft 365 (Redmond, of course, has invested some $10-billion into ChatGPT). Apparently, Copilot is a processing and orchestration engine harnessing three foundational technologies: the Microsoft 365 apps like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Teams; Microsoft Graph API which provides access to content and contextualises emails, files, meetings, chats, and calendar; and a large language model. This last bit is ‘a creative engine capable of parsing and producing human readable text’.
All very clever stuff.
It’s exciting, too, because as Nadella noted in his introduction to Copilot, nobody likes the inevitable donkey work involved in producing quality output. And there’s a lot of donkeywork: even opening a new document, looking for the right template, then saving it to the right place eats into productivity time. Make that go away, and everyone’s happier; and no, let’s not go down the road of the economic myth that technology imperils jobs. A hundred years ago economist Henry Hazlitt noted ‘Among the most viable of all economic delusions is the belief that machines on net balance create unemployment.’ He also pointed out that ‘The worker with the best set of machinery and technology behind him is the most productive, the highest paid and the most secure’ – and this Copilot sure does look like some mighty fine machinery.
Copilot apparently goes a bit further, too. Integrated with CRM or other line of business systems, it does things like generating reports and proposals drawing on the info in those applications, related databases, as well as your emails and so on. Apparently, natural language prompts like “Tell my team how we updated the product strategy,” should be enough to generate a draft status update based on the morning’s meetings, emails and chat threads.
The proof of the pudding, as always, is in the tasting. What works perfectly in the shiny chrome clean Microsoft offices involved in the various demonstrations of Copilot, may well be a little trickier in at the often murkier coal faces of the real world. Time, as they say, shall tell.