“Looks like you’re writing a letter, would you like some help with that?” Google’s AI didn’t appear at all in a recent demo of its office suite tools. But when I followed Google’s Workspace lead, Aparna Pappu described the feature On stage at I/OI remembered a certain animated paper clip that another tech giant hoped would help usher in a new era of office work.

Even Microsoft would admit that Clippy’s legacy is not entirely positive, but the virtual assistant has always been associated with a certain era of work – one filled with laborious emails, clips and beige computers with clogged hard drives. Now things have changed—it’s Slack pings, text cursors navigating Google Docs, and students who don’t know what filesystems are—and as generative AI enters our professional lives, both Google and Microsoft realize it’s required. a new era of tools to get things done.

Google has dedicated approx 10 minutes of the developer conference keynote is now calling what it calls “Duet AI for Google Workspace,” a set of AI-infused tools it’s built into its productivity apps — Gmail, Docs, Slides, Sheets, and more. Most of the features were announced earlier in March, but the demo showed them in more detail. Examples include creating a draft job description in Docs from just a few pointers, creating a spreadsheet for a dog walking business in Sheets, and even creating images to illustrate a presentation in Slides.

New for the I/O presentation was Sidekick, a feature designed to understand what you’re working on, pulling together details from Google’s various apps and giving you clear information to use as notes or even directly into your work.

If Google’s Duet is designed to combat the horror of a blank document, the Sidekick looks to a future where instead of a black AI query box, it can be the intimidating first hurdle. “What if AI could proactively offer you hints?” Pappu said while introducing the new feature. “Even better, if those prompts were actually contextual and changed based on what you were working on?”

“What if AI could proactively offer you hints?”

In a live demonstration that followed, viewers were shown how Sidekik could analyze a children’s story of about two paragraphs, provide a summary, and then provide instructions to follow it up. Clicking on one of these clues (“what happened to the golden seashell?”) ​​revealed three potential directions for the story to take. Clicking the “Insert” button added these as bullet points to the story to act as a reference for a follow-up post. It can also suggest and create an image as an illustration.

Sidekick was then shown summarizing the email chain. When required, he was able to extract specific details from the associated Spreadsheet table and include them in an email response. And finally, Sidekick in Slides suggested creating speaker notes for the presenter to read while showing the slides.

The feature appears to be a modern twist on Microsoft’s old assistant, Clippy, which asks if you want help with tasks by simply launching an action in a Word document. like writing a letter. Google’s Duet is definitely in a different league, both in terms of reading comprehension and the quality of the text the generative AI spits out. But Clippy’s core spirit — identifying what you’re trying to do and offering to help — remains.

But perhaps more important How Sidekick was shown providing this information. In Google’s demo, Sidekick is invoked by the user and doesn’t appear until the user clicks on its icon. This is important because one of the things that annoyed people the most about Clippy was that he wouldn’t shut up. “These zombies are just as persistent as Wile E. Coyote” The New York Times It is observed In the original review of Office 97.

“These zombies are just as persistent as Wile E. Coyote”

Although they share some similarities, Clippy and Sidekick belong to two very different eras of computing. Clippy was designed for an era when many people were buying their first desktop computers for the home using an office program for the first time. New York The magazine cites a Microsoft postmortem Part of the problem with this was the “optimization for first use” of the assistant – it might be useful the first time you see it, but it’s very annoying every time after that.

Fast forward to 2023 and these tools are now familiar, but depleted in terms of what they offer. We no longer just sit and type, print, and email, but instead collaborate across platforms, bring together endless streams of information, and try to produce coherent results in multimedia splendor.

AI features like Duet and Sidekick (not to mention Microsoft’s Office-competing Copilot feature) aren’t there to teach you the basics of writing a letter in Google Docs. They’re there because you’ve already written hundreds of letters and you don’t want to spend your life writing hundreds more. They are not there to indicate that Slide has a speaker notes feature; They are there to fill in for you.

Google Workspace’s Duet AI or Microsoft Office’s Copilot don’t seem interested in teaching you the basics of using the software. They are there to automate the process. The spirit of Clippy lives on, but in a world that has moved away from the need for a clip to explain how to write a letter.

Microsoft disabled Clippy by default In 2001, with the release of Office XP, and in 2007, it completely eliminated the assistant. Among these points is the philosopher Nick Bostrom, whose now famous paper clip maximizer A thought experiment that warns of the existential risk AI poses, even if given an innocuous goal (making paper clips). Clippy doesn’t come back, but his spirit – now animated by an AI – lives on. Let’s hope it’s still harmless.

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