Microsoft’s new Copilot AI agents act as virtual employees to automate tasks

Microsoft will soon allow companies and developers to create AI-powered co-pilots that can function as virtual employees and perform tasks automatically. Instead of Copilot sitting idle waiting for queries, you’ll be able to do things like monitor email inboxes and automate a number of tasks or data entry that employees typically have to do manually.

It’s a big behavioral change from Copilot in what the industry commonly calls AI agents, or the ability of chatbots to perform complex tasks intelligently and autonomously.

“We quickly realized that limiting Copilot to just having a conversation was extremely limiting on what Copilot can do today,” explains Charles Lamanna, corporate vice president of enterprise applications and platforms at Microsoft, in an interview with The edge. “Instead of having a Copilot wait there until someone chats with him, what if you could have his Copilot be more proactive and work in the background on automated tasks?”

The new home page for Microsoft’s Copilot Studio.
Image: Microsoft

Microsoft is previewing this new capability today to a very small group of early access testers ahead of a public preview within Copilot Studio later this year. Businesses will be able to create a Copilot agent that can handle IT help desk tasks, employee onboarding, and more. “Copilots are evolving from copilots who work with you to copilots who work for you,” Microsoft says in a blog post.

These Copilot agents will be activated based on certain events and will work with a company’s own data. Here’s how Microsoft describes a potential co-pilot for employee onboarding:

Imagine you are a new employee. A proactive co-pilot greets him, analyzes HR data and answers his questions, introduces him to his friend, provides training and deadlines, helps him with forms, and organizes his first week of meetings. . Now, HR and employees can work on their usual tasks, without the hassle of management.

This type of automation will naturally raise questions about job losses and fears about where AI is headed next. Lamanna maintains that Copilot agents can eliminate repetitive and mundane tasks from jobs, such as data entry, rather than replacing jobs entirely.

“What characterizes a job, what characterizes a role? It’s a lot of different tasks and, in general, it’s a lot of very diverse and heterogeneous tasks. “If someone did one thing over and over again, they probably would have already automated it with today’s technology,” says Lamanna. “We think that with Copilot and Copilot Studio, some tasks will be completely automated… but the good news is that most of the things that are automated are things that no one really wants to do.”

Microsoft’s argument that it just wants to cut back on the boring parts of your job sounds idealistic for now, but with the ongoing fight for AI dominance among tech companies, it seems we’re increasingly on the brink of more than just a basic automation. Lamanna believes that human judgment and collaboration are still important parts of getting work done and that not everything will be suitable for automation.

There are also a lot of problems with generative AI at the moment, especially around hallucinations where it just confidently makes things up. Microsoft says it has integrated a series of controls into Copilot Studio for this AI agent boost, so that Copilot doesn’t go rogue and automate tasks freely. That’s a big concern we’ve already seen develop with Meta’s own AI advertising tools failing and wasting money.

Agents within Copilot Studio.
Image: Microsoft

You can create Microsoft Copilot agents with the ability to flag certain scenarios for humans to review, which will be useful for more complex queries and data. All of this means that Copilot must operate within the boundaries of what has been defined and the instructions and actions associated with these automated tasks.

Microsoft is also making it easier for businesses to bring their own data into their custom Copilot, with data connections to public websites, SharePoint, OneDrive, and more. This is part of a broader effort within Microsoft to make Copilot more than just a chatbot that generates things.

“Copilot in 2023, and Microsoft, were very focused on searching your data, summarizing your content, and generating new content. We believe that Copilot in 2024 will be very focused on personalization,” says Lamanna. The new Copilot extensions will enable some of this customization, allowing developers to create connectors that extend Copilot to the entire line of business systems.

Microsoft also wants Copilot to work more with groups of people, rather than these individual experiences that have existed for the past year. A new Team Copilot feature will allow the assistant to manage agendas and meeting notes, moderate long team chats, or help assign tasks and track deadlines in Microsoft Planner. Microsoft plans to preview Team Copilot later this year.

At Google I/O last week, the search giant also showed off some early concepts for its own AI agents that automate tasks for you, demonstrating how Gmail users could use an AI agent to automatically fill out a return form. of some shoes and have someone pick them up.

The big question that remains is how all these AI agents will work in reality. We constantly see AI failing basic text messages, providing incorrect answers to queries, or adding extra fingers to images, so do businesses and consumers really trust it enough to automate background tasks? I guess we’re about to find out.

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