Get ready for your Windows laptop experience to change radically.
"It's the next era," said Microsoft's Pete Kyriacou, likening the impact of AI to the early days of the Internet. The comment from Kyriacou, corporate vice president of Microsoft Devices, came after the keynote presentation for the company's AI and Surface event Thursday.
The event showed that for Microsoft, this next era is starting with a tool called Copilot. The new systemwide digital helper works something like an AI chatbot and is meant to help you do everything from managing your PC's settings to finding the right playlist to listen to. Microsoft Copilot will begin rolling out to Windows 11 on Sept. 26, in the next update, and it'll also work across apps like Bing and Edge.
Microsoft, like Google, has been aggressively ramping up its efforts in artificial intelligence throughout 2023, thanks to the overnight success of online chatbot ChatGPT (which Microsoft backs). The incorporation of such technology into Windows is significant because it gives a glimpse of how the way you use a laptop could evolve.
Though Microsoft has dabbled in virtual assistants before, its previous attempts have lagged behind those of its competitors. But Kyriacou doesn't see Microsoft Copilot meeting the same fate. Since new agents like Copilot are context-aware, they can be more proactive than the voice-activated virtual aides we've come to know over the last decade.
"You as a user had the cognitive load of thinking what to ask, or having to generate from scratch to initiate the conversation," he told CNET in an interview, referring to older voice-enabled assistants. But newer agents like Copilot, said Kyriacou, can "nudge you in the right direction."
Microsoft's Windows operating system accounts for roughly 69% of the worldwide desktop OS market as of August 2023, according to StatCounter. Suffice it to say that Microsoft's decisions regarding the direction of Windows are a big deal.
Just like touch screens became standard on many premium Windows laptops after the mobile boom, AI is poised to play a larger role in future laptops. That's what Microsoft believes, at least.
Microsoft's event was packed with demos showing new ways AI will be cropping up in Windows, and the new Copilot is at the center of it all. The company says Copilot will draw from a combination of the web, your communications, and your devices to be a more personalized and efficient helper.
Carmen Zlateff, vice president of Windows, showed how Copilot could take an emailed list of recommended points of interest in New York City and calculate how long it would take to walk to them. Copilot appeared as soon as she highlighted the text, illustrating the assistant's more proactive nature. She also demonstrated how you'll be able to interact with Copilot through other input methods, like a stylus, which should make it easier to ask questions that involve symbols, such as queries about math equations.
On Microsoft's demo floor following the keynote presentation, I witnessed another example of how Copilot can understand multiple types of input methods. A Microsoft representative pasted a photo of a meal into the Copilot sidebar and typed the prompt, "How do I cook this?" The virtual assistant pulled up instructions within a few seconds. It struggled to respond, however, when the question was phrased as, "How do I make this?" The version of Copilot that launches later this month will have to be more understanding and flexible to deliver on Microsoft's promises (and it's hard to judge the current tool's effectiveness without spending more time with it).
Microsoft's digital helper will also provide answers by pulling context from other sources, like your text messages. One of Zlateff's examples showed Copilot answering a question about an upcoming flight, based on a text. And, using her laptop, she also instructed Copilot to send a text to her husband.
Copilot could be helpful for navigating your PC too, without you having to dig through settings menus. In one example on the demo floor, a company representative typed the command "Snap my windows" into Copilot's text field to organize the various apps currently running on the device.
Microsoft's AI ambitions are present in more than just its software. The company's new Surface Laptop Studio 2, which it also unveiled during Thursday's event, is the first Windows device to come with an Intel neural chip. Kyriacou says the chip is useful for things like keeping you in frame during a video call and making it look as if you're maintaining eye contact, a feature that's part of Microsoft's suite of Windows Studio Effects.
Such features aren't new to laptops, and even Apple's iPads can intelligently frame subjects. But having a dedicated AI chip will likely boost performance and prevent such features from overtaxing your computer, says Kyriacou.
The Surface Laptop Studio 2.
Microsoft's vision isn't necessarily unique. At its I/O conference in May, Google also introduced a slew of AI-powered productivity features designed to help generate images, sum up documents and write emails on your behalf.
And even though Apple isn't nearly as vocal about AI as Microsoft and Google are, the technology has undoubtedly played a larger role in its products in recent years. That's likely why certain MacOS features, like the new presenter overlay mode for video calls in MacOS Sonoma, are available only on computers running on Apple silicon.
Tech giants like Microsoft are also expected to face more scrutiny regarding AI-related products as conversations around regulation begin to arise on Capitol Hill. And for Copilot to work best, it needs access to a lot of information about you, like texts, emails, habits and so on, which could mean a lot of pushback.
In the near term, though, Microsoft's goal is to make your Windows laptop more intuitive and easy to use.
"This AI agent is reasoning over ink," said Kyriacou, referring to Copilot's ability to interpret text that you write with a stylus. "It's reasoning over a screen clip; it's reasoning over a selection inside of Outlook. And then it's also reasoning over data that may not be in front of you."