Why Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says its Copilot AI assistant will be 'as significant as the PC'

Microsoft is making a big promise about Copilot. — Photo by Turag Photography on Unsplash

At a special event in New York City on Thursday, Microsoft rolled out updates to its software and Surface hardware. I suppose some people are looking forward to the new Surface Laptop Go 3 or the Surface Laptop Studio 2, but I don't think either is anywhere near the most interesting thing Microsoft talked about.

That's because, during the keynote, Microsoft announced that it has released its AI-powered assistant, known as Copilot, to general availability. If you remember, Microsoft announced Copilot back in March.

Basically, Copilot is like having ChatGPT built into all of your Microsoft apps, like Windows, Edge, Excel, and PowerPoint. Actually, it literally is Chat-GPT – or, more specifically, it has OpenAI built in, but instead of only using the large language models (LLMs) it was trained on, it is context-aware and able to engage with your data and the software you're running on your PC. To be fair, there's more to it than that, but you get the basic idea.

That means Copilot can summarise an email in Outlook, draft a reply based on meeting notes in Word, analyse a spreadsheet in Excel, and make a PowerPoint presentation based on a marketing proposal. Or, in Windows, you can toggle on Copilot and simply type "turn on dark mode" or "start a focus timer" and it will do that.

According to Nadella, Copilot is "essentially a new category of computing." Not only is it new, Nadella thinks it going to change the way all of us work and engage with computers. He might be right.

"This is as significant as the PC was to the '80s, the Web in the '90s, mobile in the 2000s, cloud in the 2010s," said Nadella. "Just like you boot up an operating system to access applications or use a browser to navigate websites, you will involve a Copilot to do all these activities and more."

The demos are impressive. Then again, every AI demo I've seen in the past 18 months has been impressive. And every tech company has an AI demo, so I've seen a lot. The difference is what happens when you use it every day.

Microsoft is making a big promise about Copilot. The personal computer fundamentally changed the way people interacted with information and how they communicated with the world. Microsoft was a huge part of that.

The Internet went even further. It allows you to find information from almost anywhere and communicate with virtually anyone. Microsoft played a role, of course, but our current experience with the Internet is largely because of another tech giant: Google.

And, of course, the smartphone is the most personal of computers. It's also the primary way most people access the Internet. And, of course, it's Apple, not Microsoft that largely defines that experience.

It's saying something that Microsoft thinks Copilot and generative AI can be as significant as all three. It's also not surprising that the company is trying so hard to get back on top by winning this particular battle.

"We believe it has the potential to help you be more knowledgeable, more productive, more creative, more connected to the people and things around you," said Nadella.

Still, I think there are two challenges. First, will people care?

The answer depends largely on whether people find enough utility to make using AI a regular part of their workflow, instead of just something they play with when they want to see if they can make Bing have strange conversations. I think they should, but that doesn't mean they will.

For a lot of people, especially small-business owners, the benefits are pretty real. Having a tool that can summarise information, get you started on a draft proposal, or coordinate and make sense of complex projects is a huge benefit. I'm not sure it's going to replace jobs, but I do think it could make your team a lot more productive.

"You know I started in Microsoft when our mission was to put a PC in every home and every desk, and today we have a vision for a Copilot that can empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more," Nadella said.

Of course, the bigger question is whether people who would benefit from Copilot care enough to pay whatever Microsoft decides it is worth. Currently, using Copilot in Microsoft 365 requires an enterprise license that costs US$30 (about RM140) per user above the base subscription.

Those users get data protection, meaning none of their data is fed back into the language models. They also use the Bing Chat Enterprise experience in Copilot for Windows 11.

"We believe Copilot will fundamentally transform our relationship with technology and usher in the new era of personal computing," said Nadella. It's a big promise, but it's one Microsoft seems pretty set on delivering. – Inc/Tribune News Service

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