Forget Bing. Microsoft’s radical new Office features could be AI’s killer app
Microsoft 365 Copilot’s AI tools don’t seem particularly surprising for the company who originated Clippy’s helper bot. But applying AI and natural language to Microsoft Office feels like a profound, fundamental change that could absolutely transform the way you work.
Microsoft 365 Copilot essentially injects AI into the various Office apps. You’ll still interact with them the way you normally would, but Copilot will also live in the toolbar atop those apps, and you’ll interact with it in a sidebar. If you’ve ever hauled a coworker over and told them, “Show me how to do this,” you’ll understand what Microsoft 365 Copilot can do. Except it will actually, you know, do it.
It’s really the next generation of AI chatbots: Not bots that talk to you like Bing Chat, but assistants that take orders.
Jared Spataro, corporate vice president of Modern Work & Business Applications at Microsoft, probably best explained the potential in a blog post Microsoft published Thursday. “Copilot makes you better at what you’re good at and lets you quickly master what you’ve yet to learn,” he wrote. “The average person uses only a handful of commands — such as “animate a slide” or “insert a table” — from the thousands available across Microsoft 365. Now, all that rich functionality is unlocked using just natural language. And this is only the beginning.”
Microsoft 365 Copilot will roll out over the coming months to all of Microsoft’s Office apps, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Teams, Viva, Power Platform, and others. It’s currently being tested with 20 customers, including eight Fortune 500 companies. You’ll need to subscribe to Microsoft 365 to gain access.
What Microsoft 365 Copilot can do for you
Let’s put this into context. It’s still hard to believe that Bing Chat debuted in February, navigated through a series of “weird” interactions,” and has now arrived as a business tool to assist workers and executives at major corporations. But Copilot isn’t designed to tell stories and jokes. Its power is to unlock some of the deeper capabilities of Microsoft’s apps — maybe even behind the scenes — and free you up from the drudgery of day-to-day business life. Presumably, it uses OpenAI’s GPT-4 technology, though Microsoft hasn’t confirmed this.
Microsoft 365 Copilot is designed to assist you in different ways in different apps. In general, though, expect to see a “Copilot” button that will allow you to enter natural-language prompts. Microsoft suggested some prompts than you could use in Copilot, below:
- In Word, for example, one example could be: “Draft a two-page project proposal based on the data from [a document] and [a spreadsheet],” then “Make the third paragraph more concise. Change the tone of the document to be more casual.“
- In Excel: “Give a breakdown of the sales by type and channel. Insert a table.“
- In PowerPoint: “Create a five-slide presentation based on a Word document and include relevant stock photos.“
- In Outlook: “Draft a response thanking them, and asking for more details about their second and third points; shorten this draft and make the tone professional.“
- In Teams: “Summarize what I missed in the meeting. What points have been made so far? Where do we disagree on this topic?“
Take Excel, for example. Excel is, almost by design, esoteric. To some, it’s almost impenetrable! It very much caters to a certain type of mentality that enjoys interacting with columns of numbers, applying rules and logic, and transforming them into useful information via charts and graphs.
What Copilot could do, potentially, is simply make Excel a tool for non-Excel people. That’s an enormous shift in the way people work. Being able to ask Excel to identify key trends in sales data and report them in natural language — that could be sent up the chain of command to an executive, say — would be an enormous time-saver to a lot of people, and allow you to look smarter, too. Asking Copilot to actually create that email in a few seconds… well, you should get the idea. We’ve already covered how Excel Formulator and ExcelFormulaBot can use natural language to transform your ideas into Excel formulas via AI, but this could go far beyond what those tools offer.
As a writer, though, Copilot seems less useful. I’ve asked Edge Copilot’s content-creation tool to summarize a press release and write an article in VFAB’s voice. There’s simply no comparison to what I or my colleagues write. Right now, I’d spend so much time rewriting the copy that it would almost save time simply starting from scratch. But to an accountant who lacks writing skills? Copilot in Word could be the tool that helps him reach customers he otherwise wouldn’t connect with.
Copilot’s utility, then, could be in the way that it allows workers who aren’t as fluent in Excel, say, to up their game to a more fundamental level of competence, and know enough about what you’re working on across the Microsoft 365 apps to facilitate followup steps across the various apps. That’s profoundly useful right there.
Of course, there’s a more serious concern. What Microsoft is promising — and, granted, what the workforce will have to collectively test — is whether or not the company’s AI can actually understand what data is relative, and accurately collate, contexualize, and analyze that data into a coherent format. That’s going to be a big deal for an enormous number of highly paid people.
Microsoft’s Spataro claimed that sometimes Copilot could be “usefully wrong,” giving you an idea that’s not perfect but that could spark something more useful. Sure, that sounds nice. But that’s not going to cut it for someone who is literally banking on their data being right.
Copilot’s Business Chat feels a little more iffy
Business Chat feels somewhat less defined. In concept, it sounds something like what Slack is doing with its own AI chatbot: a conversational tool that you can interact with in the privacy of a Teams channel. Ask the Copilot bot what you need to prepare for your next meeting, and hopefully it will summarize your previous interactions with the client, correlate related news, summarize relevant email, and so on. You’ll also be able to address Copilot within Outlook, much in the same way you’d add a coworker.
Microsoft listed some example prompts, including What is the next milestone on [project]. Were there any risks identified? Help me brainstorm a list of some potential mitigations. That all sounds very promising, but I’m still doubtful that Microsoft can collate and correlate all this data, in a meaningful way, in the near future. Still, pulling those documents together could at least get you off on the right foot.
Incidentally, Copilot also feels very much like the tool that may actually get people dictating again. Remember how everyone felt uncomfortable talking to their PC? But for those working at home, in a private office, interacting with their computer via natural language… It certainly feels like the simplest way to direct Copilot may be by voice, rather than typing out “make the text bigger and color it purple” or something like that.
The future got here in a hurry
It’s certainly important to realize that we’re in the “the future is here!!!1” mode of AI tools. As Microsoft 365 Copilot rolls out to the workforce, workers, managers and society at large will begin factoring what Copilot can do, can’t do, and whether or not that will change our day-to-day working lives. It’s certainly possible that it won’t prove to be that useful, initially. (Microsoft’s metaverse ambitions weren’t that long ago, after all.)
Still, Microsoft today painted a profound, ambitious AI-enhanced future. Copilot could be just the beginning.