Your “Looks like you’re writing a letter, would you like some help with that?” It didn’t appear at any point during Google’s recent demo of its AI office suite tools. But as I watched Aparna Pappu, Google Workspace lead, outline the feature On stage at I/Owas reminded of a certain animated paper clip that another tech giant hoped would help usher in a new era of office work.
Even Microsoft admits that Clippy’s legacy isn’t entirely positive, but the virtual assistant is forever tied to a certain work period—one filled with tedious emails, clip art, and beige computers with hard drives. Now, work has changed—it’s the beeps of Slack, text cursors jostling in a Google Doc, and students who don’t know what file systems are—and with artificial intelligence creeping into our professional lives, both Google and Microsoft are realizing that it requires a new era of tools to get things done.
Google allocated approx 10 minutes from the developer conference keynote to what he now calls “Duet AI for Google Workspace,” a set of AI-infused tools that you build into productivity apps—Gmail, Docs, Slides, Sheets, and so on. Most of the features were announced back in March, but the demo showed them in more detail. Examples included the ability to draft a job description in Docs with just a few prompts, create a dog-walking schedule in Sheets, and even create images to illustrate a presentation in Slides.
New to the I/O show is Sidekick, a feature designed to understand what you’re working on, pull details together across different Google apps, and present clear information for you to use as notes or even integrate directly into your work.
If Google’s Duet is designed to deal with the horror of a blank document, Sidekick seems to be eyeing a future where the black AI prompt box could be the dreaded first hurdle. “What if AI could make prompts for you proactively?” Babu said because she introduced the new feature. Better yet, what if these prompts were actually contextual and changed based on what you were working on?
“What if AI could make prompts for you proactively?”
In a live demonstration that followed, it was shown how Sidekick could parse a children’s story of roughly two paragraphs, provide a summary, and then suggest prompts to continue. Clicking on one of these prompts (“What happened to the golden seashell?”) brought up three possible narrative directions. Clicking “Insert” added them as bullet points to the story to serve as a reference for ongoing writing. It can also suggest and then generate an image as an illustration.
Next, Sidekick was shown summarizing a series of emails. When prompted, it was able to pull specific details from a linked spreadsheet and insert them into an email response. Finally, in presentations, Sidekick suggested creating speaker notes for the presenter to read during the slideshow.
The feature looks like a modern twist on Clippy, the old Microsoft assistant that will spring into action at just a hint of activity in a Word document to ask if you want help with tasks Like writing a letter. Google’s Duet is certainly in a different rank, both in terms of its reading comprehension and the quality of the text its generative AI spits out. But the basic ethos of Clippy — identifying what you’re trying to do and offering to help — remains.
But perhaps the most important thing is how Sidekick is shown providing this information. In Google’s demo, Sidekick is invoked by the user and doesn’t appear until they press its icon. This is important because one of the things that annoyed people the most about Clippy is that it just won’t shut up. “This cartoon zombie insists on reappearing as Wile E. Coyote,” New York times notice In its original revision of Office 97.
This cartoon zombie insists on reappearing as Wile E. Coyote.
Although they share some similarities, Clippy and Sidekick belong to two completely different eras of computing. Clippy was designed for an era when many people were buying their first desktop computers for the home and Using office software for the first time. New York Journal cites Microsoft Autopsy That suggests that part of its problem is that the assistant is “optimized for first time use” – potentially useful the first time you saw it but deeply annoying every time after that.
Fast forward to 2023, and these tools are familiar now but exhausting in terms of the possibilities they present. We no longer just sit, write, print, and email, we collaborate across platforms, bring together endless streams of data, and try to produce cohesive output in multimedia splendor.
AI features like Duet and Sidekick (not to mention Microsoft’s competing Copilot feature for Office) aren’t there to teach you the basics of how to write a letter in Google Docs. They are there because you have already written hundreds of letters, and you don’t want to spend your life writing hundreds more by hand. They weren’t there to show that Presentations had a speaker notes feature; They are there to fill it in for you.
Google Workspace’s Duet AI or Microsoft Office’s co-pilot don’t seem interested in teaching you the basics of how to use their software. They are there to automate the process. The Clippy spirit lives on, but in a world that has moved from needing a paperclip to telling you how to write a letter.
Microsoft Clippy is disabled by default with the release of Office XP in 2001 and the removal of the assistant entirely in 2007. Between these points, philosopher Nick Bostrom outlined his now famous book Paperclip magnifier A thought experiment, I warned of the existential danger posed by artificial intelligence even given a supposedly harmless target (making paper clips). Clippy is no longer coming back, but his spirit – now powered by artificial intelligence – lives on. Let’s hope it’s still harmless.
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