Microsoft Demos Copilot, Its ‘Artificial Intelligence’ Virtual Assistant

Jared Spataro, of Microsoft:

Today at an event in New York, we announced our vision for Microsoft Copilot — a digital companion for your whole life — that will create a single Copilot user experience across Bing, Edge, Microsoft 365, and Windows. As a first step toward realizing this vision, we’re unveiling a new visual identity — the Copilot icon — and creating a consistent user experience that will start to roll out across all our Copilots, first in Windows on September 26 and then in Microsoft 365 Copilot when it is generally available for enterprise customers on November 1.

This is a typically ambitious effort from Microsoft. Copilot replaces Cortana, which will mostly be dropped later this year, and is being pitched as a next-generation virtual assistant in a similar do everything vein. This much I understand; tying virtual assistants to voice controls does not make much sense because sometimes — and, for me, a lot of the time — you do not want to be chatting with your computer. That is certainly a nice option and a boon for accessibility, but clear and articulate speech should not be required to use these kinds of features.

Microsoft’s implementation, however, is worrisome as I use a Windows PC at my day job. Carmen Zlateff, Microsoft Windows vice president, demoed a feature today in which she said “as soon as I copy the text, Copilot appears” in a large sidebar that spans the entire screen height. I copy a lot of stuff in a day, and I cannot tell you how much I do not want a visually intrusive — if not necessarily interruptive — feature like this. I hope I will be able to turn this off.

Meanwhile, a bunch of this stuff is getting jammed into Edge and Microsoft 365 productivity apps. Edge is getting so bloated it seems like the company will need to make a new browser again very soon. The Office features might help me get through a bunch of emails very quickly, but the kinds of productivity enhancements Microsoft suggests for me have not yet materialized into something I actually find useful. Its Viva Insights tool, introduced in 2021, is supposed to analyze your individual working patterns and provide recommendations, but I cannot see why I should pay attention to a graphic that looks like the Solar System illustrating which of my colleagues I spoke with least last week. Designing dashboards like these are a fun project and they make great demos. I am less convinced of their utility.

I get the same kind of vibe from Copilot. I hope it will be effective at summarizing all my pre-reads for a meeting, but I have my doubts. So much of what Microsoft showed today requires a great deal of trust from users: trust in its ability to find connections; in its accuracy; in its ability to balance helpfulness and intrusion; in its neutrality to its corporate overlords. One demo showed someone searching for cleats using Microsoft’s shopping search engine and getting a deal with the browser-based coupon finder. It is a little thing, but can I trust Copilot and Microsoft Shopping are showing me the best quality results that are most relevant, or should I just assume this is a lightly personalized way to see which companies have the highest ad spend with Microsoft?

It seems risky to so confidently launch something like this at a time when trust in big technology companies is at rock-bottom levels in the United States, especially among young people. Microsoft is certainly showing it is at the leading edge of this stuff, and you should expect more from its competitors very soon. I am just not sure giving more autonomy to systems like these from powerful corporations is what people most want.