With Windows Copilot, AI Is Getting Into Microsoft's Most Important Software

Windows is prime digital real estate, and it's getting a chatbot that can adjust PC settings, perform searches and suggest music. A first preview is now available.

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Stephen Shankland
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Microsoft is building AI chat into Windows 11 with a feature called Windows Copilot.

Microsoft; GIF by Arielle Burton/CNET

With a tool called Windows Copilot, Microsoft has begun building an AI chat interface straight into its single most important software product. The tool will perform tasks like summarizing documents, suggesting music, offering tech support for your PC and answering questions you might ask a search engine or AI chatbot.

This newest of Microsoft's AI tools will be arriving in a preview version of Windows via an icon in the task bar that looks like a loop of blue ribbon. Clicking it opens a chat interface sidebar where you can type questions or prompts like "enable dark mode" and click buttons to take actions. In late May, Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft's marketing chief for consumer products, said the company would begin testing the feature in June.

On Thursday, two days before the end of the month, Microsoft offered an "early look" at Windows Copilot to those in its Windows Insider software testing program, in a preview focused on what it called the integrated UI experience, and it promised more functionality arriving in future previews.

Watch this: Windows Copilot Preview: How to Manage Your PC With the AI Assistant

It's a major new step in Microsoft's embrace of artificial intelligence technology. Previously the company had built AI into its Bing search engine and Edge web browser, but Windows is used by millions more people and for many more hours a day.

"We are bringing the Copilot to the biggest canvas of all, Windows," CEO Satya Nadella said at the company's Microsoft Build developer conference in May. The arrival of AI chat interfaces is as important to computing progress as other major moments, like the arrival of the internet or the iPhone, he said.

Read more: Windows 10 Is Being Phased Out. Here's What That Means for You

And the change reflects a growing seriousness in modern AI. Google has begun building AI directly into search, Gmail, Docs and other key services used by billions of people. Adobe on Tuesday released a beta version of Photoshop that uses AI to generate new imagery. AI remains experimental, but no longer is AI on the periphery of the world's biggest tech products.

Microsoft also is building its Copilot technology into its Office suite of productivity tools.

Google has taken a different approach with its AI, restricting its more freewheeling chatbot technology to its Bard chatbot and adding more factual, literal tools to search, Gmail and other mainstream tools.

Watch this: See Everything Announced at Microsoft Build 2023

Mehdi thinks that's a mistake, though. Indeed, he hopes Google keeps the functions separate because that'll help Microsoft's prospects, he said.

"Customers have told us they're not a separate thing. They think it's all integrated," Mehdi said in an interview. "The ability to be able to ask any question from where you are, to get searchlike answers, that's a powerful thing for customers."

He's also excited to see it help with a profound user interface problem common in the tech world: helping nonexperts just figure out how to do useful things like snap an app window to one side of their laptop's screen.

"The number one feature of Windows that people have loved is snap. Even then, people still have trouble knowing how to do it," Mehdi said. "But if you can now say, 'Hey, snap a couple of windows for me,' and the PC can do it, that's a massive unlock for people."

Read More: Microsoft Rolls Out Tool That Connects Your iPhone to Your PC

Microsoft added AI-boosted search results and an AI chatbot to its Bing search engine in February. It relies on OpenAI, an artificial intelligence powerhouse in which Microsoft has invested, for the core language processing technology. Thanks in part to the feature, Bing usage crossed the threshold of 100 million people per day, Mehdi said, though he wouldn't reveal the pace of the growth.

Also at Build, Microsoft announced it's making plugin technology available to Bing and Windows Copilot so developers can integrate their own software. That'll let you tap into those apps using Microsoft's AI interfaces.

And Microsoft announced that OpenAI is using Bing search engine data to help improve its ChatGPT chatbot. Search engines can be used to "ground" generative AI tools that can often make up incorrect information.

Editors' note: CNET is using an AI engine to create some personal finance explainers that are edited and fact-checked by our editors. For more, see this post.

Watch this: Windows 11 Gets AI Copilot