Microsoft enhances ‘Copilot’ in race with Google to create AI-powered assistants

Big Tech in battle over AI agents that can autonomously complete tasks for workers

Microsoft has unveiled an enhanced artificial intelligence-powered assistant that can operate without direct commands while supporting the work of entire company departments, as the tech giant steps up its rivalry with Google to create AI products for businesses.

The world’s most valuable listed company said its “Copilot” feature would now be able to serve whole teams within an organisation, not just individuals. For example, it could create and assign tasks to specific people and manage the agenda for a group meeting.

The Seattle-based group said business customers would also be able to create custom “agents” that can be configured to operate without waiting for human instructions. The company said the digital assistant can react to an incoming email by automatically suggesting or sending out responses, or instantly processing a customer order.

The enhanced capabilities form part of a slew of product updates revealed at Microsoft’s annual developer conference which started on Tuesday, with Copilot emerging as a flagship product that the company hopes would drive future profits.

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Copilot had been “a game-changer” in “taking the drudgery out of work”, said Rajesh Jha, executive vice-president of experiences and devices at Microsoft.

Microsoft took an early lead in developing generative AI products thanks to its $13 billion (€11.9 billion) investment in OpenAI, while vying with the likes of Google and Amazon to roll out competing services.

Tuesday’s updates come days after Google unveiled a range of AI capabilities that are “multimodal”, with digital agents that can answer questions across video, audio and text. That followed similar product launches and upgrades from companies including Meta and OpenAI.

The announcements are part of a push by tech groups including Google, Apple and OpenAI to create AI-powered smart assistants that can take the initiative in completing tasks for people.

Hardware companies also hope that consumers drawn by new AI features will be pushed to replace their old devices. Apple this month launched a new line of iPads powered by its next generation of M4 chips.

On Monday, Microsoft unveiled a new series of AI-enhanced PCs and tablets in a challenge to Apple’s prominence. Certain devices made by companies including Dell, HP and Samsung would be equipped with Copilot capabilities that could, for example, be prompted to “recall” a user’s past actions.

As part of Tuesday’s announcements, Microsoft said customers using its AI services would now be able to use OpenAI’s latest model, GPT-4o, as well as its family of small language models called Phi-3, which include a new multimodal model, Phi-3-vision.

The company also said a new ability to connect Copilot for Microsoft 365 to a broad range of data sources and applications – such as legal data sets and customer records – would allow the smart assistant to “reason” across a broader range of inputs.

Asked how the more autonomous Copilot agents would be policed, Charles Lamanna, Microsoft’s corporate vice-president of business applications and platforms, said users would be able to require that a human approve AI-suggested actions, such as allowing people to check an AI-generated email before it was sent. Users could also review in real time the steps an agent was going through to get to an outcome.

“We’re not saying autopilot; we say co-pilot for a reason,” said Mr Jha. “We don’t think the co-pilot can be independent of human agency.”

The upgraded Copilot tools will be available to business customers in preview later this year.

Investors are eager for evidence that the hugely expensive technology will drive healthy returns and, while Microsoft has said its new AI tools have helped drive sales, it has not disclosed Copilot user numbers.

Copilot was “central to [Microsoft’s] AI narrative” but “the broader adoption curve remains shallower than many (including us) originally anticipated a quarter or two ago, specifically among office workers”, wrote analysts at Deutsche Bank in April. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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