New York (CNN) – In just a few months, you can ask a virtual assistant to transcribe meeting notes during a work call, summarize long email threads to quickly draft suggested replies, quickly create a specific chart in Excel, and switch on Convert Word document to PowerPoint presentation in seconds.
And that’s only on Microsoft’s 365 platforms.
Over the past week, a rapidly evolving artificial intelligence landscape seemed to take another leap forward. Microsoft and Google each unveiled new AI-powered capabilities for their signature productivity tools, and OpenAI unveiled its next generation of the technology powering its viral chatbot tool, ChatGPT.
Suddenly, AI tools that have long operated in the background of many services are now more powerful and visible across a wide and growing range of workplace tools.
For example, Google’s new features promise to help with “brainstorming” and “proofreading” written work in Docs. If your workplace uses the popular chat platform Slack, you can let their ChatGPT tool talk to colleagues for you, possibly asking them to write and reply to new messages and group conversations into channels.
OpenAI, Microsoft and Google are at the forefront of this trend, but they are not alone. IBM, Amazon, Baidu and Tencent are working on similar technologies. A long list of startups are also developing AI writing assistants and image generators.
The tech companies’ reasoning is clear: AI can make you more productive and eliminate grunt work. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella put it during a presentation on Thursday, “We believe this next generation of AI will unleash a new wave of productivity growth: powerful co-pilots designed to take the drudgery out of our daily tasks and jobs and to give us the freedom to rediscover the joy of creation.”
But the sheer number of new options coming to market is both staggering and, like so much else in the tech industry over the past decade, begs the question of whether they will live up to the hype or have unintended consequences, including enabling cheating and eliminating the need for specific roles (although this may be the intention of some users).
The promise of higher productivity is also unclear. The proliferation of AI-generated emails, for example, could increase productivity for the sender but decrease it for recipients, who are inundated with computer-generated messages for longer than necessary. And of course, just because everyone has the opportunity to use a chatbot to communicate with colleagues doesn’t mean everyone will choose to do so.
Integrating this technology “with the fundamental pieces of productivity software that most of us use every day will have a significant impact on how we work,” said Rowan Curran, an analyst at Forrester. “But this change won’t sweep everyone and everything tomorrow – it will take time to learn how best to use these features to improve and adapt our existing workflows.”
A rapid shift in workplace tools
Anyone who has ever used an autocomplete option when composing an email or sending a message has seen how AI can speed up tasks. But the new tools promise to go far beyond that.
The renewed wave of AI product launches began nearly four months ago when OpenAI released a limited version of ChatGPT that amazed users with human-sounding responses to user input, passed exams at prestigious universities, and wrote compelling essays on a range of topics.
Since then, the technology — in which Microsoft made a “multibillion-dollar” investment earlier this year — has only gotten better. Earlier this week, OpenAI unveiled GPT-4, a more powerful version of the technology underpinning ChatGPT that promises to blow previous iterations out of the water.
In early tests and a company demo, GPT-4 was used to design suits, create a working website from a hand-drawn sketch, and recreate iconic games like Pong, Tetris, or Snake with very little to no programming experience.
GPT-4 is an extensive language model trained on vast troves of online data to generate responses to user input.
It’s the same technology that underpins two new Microsoft features: “Co-Pilot,” which helps edit, summarize, create, and compare documents across platforms, and Business Chat, an agent that essentially interacts with the user rides along while working and trying to understand and make sense of their Microsoft 365 data.
For example, the agent knows what’s in a user’s email and calendar for the day, as well as the documents they’ve been working on, the presentations they’ve created, the people they’re meeting with, and much more According to the company, the chats take place on their teams platform. Users can then ask Business Chat to complete tasks such as For example, they can write a status report summarizing all the documents related to a specific project across platforms, and then compose an email that can be sent to their team with an update.
Curran said how much these AI-powered tools will transform work depends on the application. For example, a word processing application could help create outlines and drafts, a slideshow program can speed up the design and content creation process, and a spreadsheet app should help more users interact with data and make decisions. The latter, he believes, will have the greatest impact on the workplace in both the short and long term.
Discussion of how these technologies will affect jobs “should be focused on job tasks rather than jobs as a whole,” he said.
Although OpenAI’s GPT-4 update promises solutions to some of its biggest challenges – from its potential to perpetuate prejudice, sometimes being factually incorrect, and reacting aggressively – there’s still a chance some of these problems will make their way into the workplace . especially when it comes to interacting with others.
Arijit Sengupta, CEO and founder of AI solutions company Aible, said a problem with any great language model is that it tries to please the user and usually accepts the premise of what the user is saying.
“When people start gossiping about something, it becomes accepted as the norm and then content generation begins [related to that]Sengupta said, adding that it could escalate interpersonal issues and lead to office bullying.
In a tweet earlier this week, Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, wrote that the technology behind these systems “is still buggy, still limited, and still seems more impressive the first time you use it than when you’ve spent more time with it.” The company reiterated in a blog post that “great care should be taken when using language model outputs, especially in high-stakes contexts.”
Arun Chandrasekaran, an analyst at Gartner Research, said companies need to educate their users about what these solutions are for and what their limitations are.
“Blind faith in these solutions is just as dangerous as total lack of faith in their effectiveness,” said Chandrasekaran. “Generative AI solutions can also make up facts or present inaccurate information from time to time — and companies need to be prepared to mitigate those negative impacts.”
At the same time, many of these applications are not up to date (the data from GPT-4 on which it was trained will be discontinued around September 2021). It is the user’s responsibility to do everything from double checking for accuracy to changing the language to reflect the desired tone. It will also be important to get buy-in and support across all workplaces for the tools to take off.
“Training, education and organizational change management are very important to ensure that people are supporting the effort and the tools are being used as intended,” said Chandrasekaran.