Google’s AI tools embrace Clippy’s dream

The words “looks like you’re writing a letter, would you like 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’s Workspace leader, describe the feature on stage in I/OI was reminded of a certain animated clip that another tech giant once hoped would help usher in a new era of office work.

Even Microsoft would acknowledge that Clippy’s legacy isn’t entirely positive, but the virtual assistant is forever associated with a particular period of work, one replete with plodding emails, clip art, and beige computers with rattling hard drives. Now, work has changed: it’s Slack pings, text cursors being nudged into a Google document, and students not knowing what file systems are, and as generative AI infiltrates our professional lives. Both Google and Microsoft acknowledge that you’re calling for a new era of tools to get things done.

Google spent approximately 10 minutes of his developer conference keynote to what it now calls “Duet AI for Google Workspace,” a collection of AI-infused tools it’s incorporating into its productivity apps: Gmail, Docs, Slides, Sheets, etc. Most of the features were previously announced in March, but the demo showed them in more detail. Examples included being able to generate a draft job description in Docs from just a couple of prompts, creating a timeline for a dog-walking business in Sheets, and even generating images to illustrate a presentation in Slides.

New to Presentation I/O was Sidekick, a feature designed to understand what you’re working on, gather details from different Google apps, and present clear information to you to use as notes or even embed directly into your work.

If Google’s Duet is designed to deal with the horror of a blank document, Sidekick seems to be looking to a future where a black AI prompt box might be the first intimidating hurdle. “What if AI could proactively offer you directions?” Pappu said while introducing the new feature. “Even better, what if these prompts were truly contextual and changed based on what you were working on?”

“What if AI could proactively offer you directions?”

In a live demo that followed, the audience was shown how Sidekick could analyze a children’s story of about two paragraphs, provide a summary, and then suggest guidelines for continuing it. Clicking on one of these messages (“What happened to the golden shell?”) brought up three possible directions for the narrative. Clicking “insert” added these as bullet points to the story to act as a reference for ongoing writing. You could also suggest and then generate an image for illustration purposes.

Next, Sidekick was shown summarizing a chain of emails. When prompted, he was able to extract specific details from an Associated Sheets spreadsheet and insert them into an emailed response. And finally, under Slides, Sidekick suggested generating speaker notes for the presenter to read while they show the slides.

The feature seems like a modern twist on Clippy, the old Microsoft assistant that would spring into action at the mere hint of activity in a Word document to ask if you wanted help with homework. how to write a letter. Google’s Duet is surely in a different league, both in terms of reading comprehension and the quality of the text that the generative AI spits out. But Clippy’s basic ethos: identify what he’s trying to do and offer to help, remains.

But perhaps more important is as Sidekick was shown offering this information. In Google’s demo, Sidekick is invoked by the user and doesn’t appear until he presses its icon. That’s important since one of the things that annoyed people the most about Clippy was that he wouldn’t shut the fuck up. “These toon-zombies are as insistent on showing up again as Wile E. Coyote”, The New York Times observed in its original revision of Office 97.

“These toon-zombies are as insistent on showing up again as Wile E. Coyote”

Although they share some similarities, Clippy and Sidekick belong to two very different computing eras. Clippy was designed for an era when many people were buying their first desktop computers for home and using office software for the first time. NY The magazine cites a Microsoft autopsy that says part of your problem was that the wizard was “optimized for first use,” potentially useful the first time you saw it but intensely annoying every time thereafter.

Fast forward to 2023, and these tools are now familiar but exhausting in the possibilities they offer. We no longer just sit, type, print, and email, but collaborate across platforms, assemble endless streams of data, and attempt 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’re there because you’ve already written hundreds of letters and you don’t want to spend your life manually typing hundreds more. They’re not there to show that Presentations has a speaker notes feature; they are there to fill it for you.

Google Workspace’s Duet AI or Microsoft Office’s Copilot don’t seem interested in teaching you the basics of how to use their software. They are there to automate the process. Clippy’s spirit lives on, but in a world where she no longer needs a clipboard to tell her how to write a letter.

Microsoft Clippy disabled by default with the release of Office XP in 2001 and removed the wizard entirely in 2007. Among these points, philosopher Nick Bostrom described his now famous clip-on maximizer thought experiment, which warned of the existential risk posed by AI, even if assigned a supposedly harmless target (making paper clips). Clippy isn’t coming back, but his spirit, now animated by AI, lives on. Let’s hope he’s still harmless.


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