is infusing its popular workplace software with the technology behind the viral chatbot ChatGPT, upgrading PowerPoint, Word, Excel and Outlook with new abilities in its latest move to try to stay ahead in the artificial-intelligence race.
The software giant has gone all-in on generative AI, following its multibillion-dollar investment in ChatGPT’s creator OpenAI. In February, Microsoft rolled out a new version of its search engine Bing that used generative AI to give direct answers to questions and had a sophisticated chat tool. Now it is bringing the technology to its Microsoft 365 suite of software to enable users to create presentations, write documents and summarize emails—all from natural-language prompts.
Bing is only a small part of the overall search market—around 10% by some estimates. The less than $12 billion in revenue it generated in the year ended June is a small fraction of Microsoft’s overall business. Microsoft 365 software is a cornerstone of the company’s business and a leader in the overall business-software marketplace.
Reinventing the company’s workplace products around generative AI is “a really big deal,” Microsoft Chief Executive
said in an interview. “You already have significant usage of these properties. And so the question is, can we use AI to really help solve some of the customer challenges that we see today?”
The significance of that business could be informing how the Bing and Microsoft 365 updates are being rolled out. The former was released as a product announcement at a big media event and expanded to a broader audience within weeks. Microsoft says it will take months to roll out its AI-infused suite of office software.
It is starting by giving the tech to 20 customers, including eight of America’s largest companies, Microsoft said, without naming the companies. It didn’t say when or if it would charge extra for the upgrade.
Where Bing search is largely about pulling answers from the web, Microsoft’s workplace software has many types of customers with varying and complex demands. That’s why the company is taking a more measured approach with this release, said Mr. Nadella.
“What is happening in Word is different from what is happening in Excel from what’s happening in Teams, and you want to make sure we get all of these things right,” he said.
The main feature the company will be releasing is what it calls the Microsoft 365 Copilot. It will be embedded inside its Microsoft 365 suite, and allow users, through natural-language inputs, to generate documents, presentations and original text.
A Word user will be able to highlight a paragraph and the AI can offer different options for a rewritten version of it. The technology can create a PowerPoint presentation based on the text from a document, the company said. It could, for example, take an essay about the French Revolution and turn it into a presentation with multiple slides and images.
Inside Excel, the spreadsheet tool, Copilot can help users analyze sales data, determine trends and create charts without becoming Excel experts.
Microsoft has also built an AI-powered tool called Business Chat which works across Microsoft 365 and can do things like summarizing multiple emails, creating transcripts from conversations on Microsoft Teams and highlighting the times a specific topic came up in meetings.
Using natural language to carry out these complex tasks “represents kind of a new computer-human interaction model,” said
corporate vice president of modern work and business applications at Microsoft.
Microsoft is using an array of so-called large language models developed by OpenAI, including the AI company’s latest update of the technology, GPT-4.
There has been a boom in AI in recent months as tech giants and startups have been racing to improve and test the technology and incorporate it into their products. On Tuesday, Google said generative AI features will be folded into its workplace suite Workspace.
It will allow people using Google Docs and Gmail to generate text and emails based on natural-language prompts. Google demonstrated in a blog how someone can produce a job listing based on a few commands.
Both Google and Microsoft are being cautious about how quickly and widely they roll out these products. Microsoft hasn’t announced a date for the wide release of Microsoft 365 Copilot and Google says it is still testing its features among a small group of users.
Part of the hesitancy could be that the large language models that the AI uses can come up with wrong answers. They have a tendency to sometimes hallucinate responses to questions—meaning the software makes up a response and presents it as accurate.
It was a problem that marred the release of AI-infused Bing, as multiple users reported inaccurate responses and bizarre interactions with the search engine and its chat tool.
While Microsoft and its partner OpenAI say they have made improvements, they say the technology isn’t perfect. In the demo Microsoft showed The Wall Street Journal, the Business Chat tool wasn’t initially able to summarize some of the questions that were asked during the meeting. Then in a bullet-point summary of the interview, the software misidentified a Microsoft executive’s comments as those from a journalist.
Humans still need to vet the accuracy of the content these tools churn out, said Mr. Nadella, which is why the company is calling it Copilot. It helps workers, it doesn’t replace them.
“Just like when the mouse was first introduced and we had to learn, clicking and right-clicking, we will, perhaps two years from now, three years from now get very familiar with, ‘oh, yeah I know I’m dealing with a copilot, not an autopilot.’”
Write to Tom Dotan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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