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Google’s AI tools embrace the dream of Clippy

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The words “I see you are writing a letter, can you help me?” A recent demo of Google’s AI office suite of tools didn’t show up at any point. But as Google’s Workspace lead watched Aparna Pappu outline the feature, On the I/O stageI was reminded of an animated clip that once hoped another tech giant would usher in a new era of office work.

Even Microsoft will admit that Clippy’s legacy isn’t entirely positive, but the virtual assistant will forever be associated with a specific period of work. That is work chock-full of painstaking emails, clip art, and a beige computer with a clattering hard drive. Now the work situation has changed. Slack pings, text his cursors cluttering up in Google Docs, students who don’t know what a file system is. And as generative AI permeates our professional lives, both Google and Microsoft are recognizing what AI is asking for. A new era of tools to get things done.

Google is loosely dedicated 10 minute developer conference keynote It’s now called “Duet AI for Google Workspace” and is a collection of tools that incorporate AI into productivity apps like Gmail, Docs, Slides, and Sheets. Most of the features were previously announced in his March, but the demonstration showed them off in even greater detail. Examples include generating a draft job description in a document from just two prompts, scheduling a dog-walking business in a spreadsheet, and generating images to illustrate a presentation in a slide. includes.

New in I/O presentation was Sidekick. It’s a feature designed to understand what you’re working on, pull together details from various Google apps, and present clear information that you can use as notes or incorporate directly into your work.

If Google’s Duet was designed to address the fear of blank documents, Sidekick instead seems to see a future where black AI prompt boxes can be the intimidating first hurdle. is. “What if AI could proactively provide prompts?” Papp said while introducing the new feature. “Even better, what if these prompts were actually contextual and changed based on what you were working on?”

“What if AI could proactively provide prompts?”

A live demonstration that followed showed the audience how Sidekick could analyze a children’s story about two paragraphs long, provide a summary, and suggest prompts to continue. Clicking on his one of these prompts (“What happened to the golden shell?”) ​​reveals his three possible directions for the story to go. Click “Insert” to add these as bullet points to your story and act as a reference for your ongoing writing. You can also suggest and generate images as illustrations.

Then I was presented with a Sidekick summarizing a series of emails. When prompted, I was able to pull specific details from the associated spreadsheet and insert them into the emailed response. And finally, regarding the slides, Sidekick suggested generating the speaker’s notes for the presenter to read while presenting the slides.

The feature is like a modern take on Microsoft’s old assistant Clippy, kicking off with just a hint of activity in a Word document and asking if you need help with a task. like writing a letter. Google’s Duet is clearly exceptional, both in terms of reading comprehension and the quality of the text spewed by its generative AI. But his basic Clippy ethos of identifying what he’s trying to do and offering to help remains the same.

But perhaps more importantly, how A sidekick appeared that provided this information. In Google’s demo, Sidekick is invoked by the user and does not appear until the user presses its icon. This is important because one of the things that annoyed people the most about Clippy was that it never completely shut up. “These toon zombies are as relentless in reappearing as Wile E. Coyote.” new york times observed In my first review of Office 97.

“These toon zombies are as relentless in reappearing as Wile E. Coyote.”

Clippy and Sidekick share some similarities, but they belong to two very different eras of computing. Clippy was designed for an era when many people are buying their first desktop computer for home or home use. Using office software for the first time. new york Magazine cites Microsoft post-mortem investigation Part of the problem, he said, was that the assistant was “optimized for first-time use.” It might be helpful the first time you see it, but after that it becomes very annoying every time.

Fast forward to 2023 and these tools are now familiar, but the odds are very slim. We no longer just sit down and type, print, and email, but we are collaborating across platforms and trying to put together endless streams of data to produce stunning, multimedia and consistent output.

AI features like Duet and Sidekick (not to mention Microsoft’s competing Copilot features for Office) aren’t there to teach you the basics of how to write a letter in Google Docs. They’re there because you’ve already written hundreds of them and you don’t want to spend your life writing hundreds more manually. They are not there to indicate that the slide has speaker notes functionality. They are there to set it up for you.

Duet AI in Google Workspace and Copilot in Microsoft Office seem uninterested in teaching you the basics of how to use their software. They exist to automate processes. The spirit of Clippy lives on, but it’s changing in a world where paperclips are no longer needed to teach you how to write a letter.

microsoft Clippy is disabled by default Office XP was released in 2001 and the Assistant was completely removed in 2007. Between these points, the philosopher Nick Bostrom outlined his now famous way of thinking. paperclip maximizer This thought experiment warned of the existential risks posed by AI, even given a seemingly innocuous goal (creating a paperclip). Clippy isn’t resurrected, but its spirit lives on, animated by AI. Let’s hope it’s still harmless.

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