In my day-to-day reading across the web, I’ve noticed that AI stories tend to come in two forms. The scary form – “AI is going to take over the world and destroy the human race” or the visionary form – “I can’t believe that one day they’ll be able to do that”.
Neither of these two forms is particularly relatable to the average person. They may grab our attention with a headline, but then we get on with our day-to-day lives. So, in this post, I wanted to change that and talk about the little ways that AI is already making a difference in our everyday work lives and for this example, I’m going to use Microsoft as the model.
You see Microsoft have been quietly putting more AI capabilities into their products for years, but they don’t often get a lot of ongoing attention. There are probably many reasons for this, but amongst them is the fact these features are not particularly mind-blowing and tend to be viewed as embedded product capabilities – not a feature in their own right. This is interesting when you also hear that “Microsoft AI is all about amplifying human ingenuity with intelligent technologies”1.
It’s not about replacing humans or doing our jobs for us, it’s about helping us collaborate, work smarter, faster, anytime, anywhere – and harnessing our inherent creativity which is in perfect alignment with our modern workplace philosophy.
“Microsoft AI is all about amplifying human ingenuity with intelligent technologies”
Let’s take one simple example with the new Surface Pro X and its Eye Gaze technology. When I’m on a video call in Microsoft Teams and looking directly at my screen (where my colleagues faces appear), Eye Gaze will make it look like I’m staring straight at my webcam instead. To the person on the other end, it feels like I’m looking at them in the eye when I’m talking to them, not looking down at something else. A small thing maybe, but it means a lot for making a video call feel natural and building genuine human connection between the two callers – and it’s powered by AI.
Eye Gaze is made possible by the inclusion of a new SQ1 chip (developed in partnership with Qualcomm) that currently is only in the Surface Pro X. If you’ll excuse me jumping into some tech specs for a second; this particular feature would draw about 15 watts on a regular PC, putting far too much strain on the GPU. With the SQ1, the GPU uses 50 times less power – so if you’re following my lead, I’m predicting that there are big plans for this engineering marvel to power many more AI features in the future.
If we take this theme of connection further, Project Cortex is another really interesting example from Microsoft. The ability to harness knowledge and make connections between existing ideas is one of the ways that new ideas take shape. Knowledge is now a competitive advantage.
The problem is that in a corporate environment, knowledge has never been more fragmented. We have emails, wikis, Intranets, chat apps, CRMs, collaboration platforms… the list goes on. We store information in Word and Excel, and other everyday apps, in folder structures that can get many layers deep – often relying on some “expert” that has seen that information before to be able to recall it, find it and share it when needed.
Project Cortex aims to bring all that knowledge together, securely, timely, and in context, to create what Microsoft refers to as a knowledge network. Again, aligning with the amplifying human ingenuity theme, the idea here is not to use AI to write the content for us, but to assemble that content into related topics and serve it up while you’re working. So, when I’m writing a post like this, ideas are presented to me for consideration, and I can then decide how and when to use them – I don’t have to go searching.
The Microsoft workhorses of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook have also been getting a little AI treatment. Ideas in Word uses natural language processing and machine learning to provide contextually aware suggestions to improve the writing in a document.
Presenter Coach in PowerPoint helps users practice their presentation by providing real-time feedback on things such as culturally sensitive phrases, avoiding filler words, reading from the slides and pacing. Live Captions and Subtitles supports 12 spoken languages and displays on-screen captions or subtitles in one of 60+ languages while the Reuse Slides feature trawls through other decks that you have access to, providing recommendations for the presentation you’re creating.
In Excel, you can now convert an image/photograph of a table into formatted and editable content. (Editor’s note: we’re not talking about a picture of your dining table here!). Natural language query support also means users can ask questions of their data as if they were talking to a person – avoiding the challenge of writing formulas and allowing basic users to do complex tasks.
MyAnalytics in Outlook can help you prepare for time off by automating out-of-office notification setup, informing collaborators of your time away and resolving meetings you’ll miss … I’m a big fan of this feature! It can also encourage best practices like booking meetings promptly, adding an agenda, prompt meeting follow-ups and delaying email delivery outside of normal working hours; much like a digital assistant.
In addition, thanks to a recent upgrade, Cortana can now also read your emails to you, book and reschedule meetings, and provide personalized daily rundowns to help you prepare for meetings.
Microsoft’s corporate video-sharing service Stream is also being improved with two new AI-driven features. Voice Enhance eliminates background noise with a single click to help you focus on the person speaking and Stream’s automatic captions and transcripts is being boosted by the addition of 6 new languages sometime around Q2 2020 (Chinese (simplified), French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Portuguese).
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1. Roach, John (2019). How AI is making people’s workday more productive. [Online] Available at https://blogs.microsoft.com/ai/microsoft-365-intelligent-workday-productivity/