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Microsoft Unveils Copilot-Assisted Future for Devs

Microsoft announced the next step in its evolving generative AI strategy on Thursday with news that its ubiquitous Office suite will soon support natural language (NL) interactions. But while NL-powered versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Teams are sure to grab mainstream headlines, developers learned that Redmond is also AI-enabling components of the Microsoft Power Platform with GitHub's Copilot tool.

Three of the four components that comprise the Power Platform—Power Apps (low/no code development), Power Automate (process automation, formerly "Flow"), and Power Virtual Agents (intelligent virtual bots)—will soon include "a Copilot experience."

"Microsoft Power Platform has been on a journey to empower all developers with AI-powered development experiences since 2021," Charles Lamana, VP of Redmond's Lo Code Application Platform group said in a blog post. "Power Apps was one of the first products to use GPT in a commercial capacity, and express design in Power Apps has enabled makers to automatically turn their drawings, images and Figma documents into app user interfaces (UIs). This union of AI and low-code revolutionizes the way solutions are built and fundamentally transforms the way people work, collaborate, and create."

Developers using the Power Platform will soon be able to build an app, flow, or bot by describing it using natural language. Copilot then builds the software, and the developer refines it.

"Describe your application’s purpose and a data table is automatically generated for your app," Lamana explained. "Using Copilot, makers can then leverage natural language to refine the app to suit their needs. Now, everyone can build an app, and professional developers can also save more time, focusing on more complex code, components, and integrations."

In another blog post, Ryan Cunningham, VP in Microsoft's Power Apps group, talked about the implementation of Copilot in Power Platform as "part of the evolution of code abstraction," or the move from custom code to low-code and eventually, natural language authoring "where human and machine work side by side to build applications together."

Currently in experimental preview, the new AI features in the platform are powered by Azure OpenAI Service with GPT. Microsoft emphasized in its announcement that preview features aren’t meant for production use and may have restricted functionality and limited deployment availability.

Copilot, introduced by Microsoft-owned GitHub in 2021, is powered by OpenAI's GPT-3 large language model, on which ChatGPT is built. And Power Platform has been a target for AI-enablement since then, Lamana pointed out.

Redmond announced its plans to integration Copilot in Power Platform during its "Future of Work" online event.

"Today marks the next major step in the evolution of how we interact with computing, which will fundamentally change the way we work and unlock a new wave of productivity growth," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told attendees. "With our new copilot for work, we’re giving people more agency and making technology more accessible through the most universal interface—natural language."

Nadella did not say specifically when the new AI features would debut in the Office suite, or how it will impact pricing, but only that it was coming "in the months ahead."

In its announcement, Microsoft took pains to set expectations about the expected "human" flaws in these new integrations. And whether our new AI-enabled future will be, as Nadella put it, a "symbiosis between human and machine" definitely remains to be seen. But we're about to see it sooner than many of us expected. Buckle up!

Posted by John K. Waters on March 16, 2023