Mar 14, 2023 - Technology

Microsoft, Google race to bring generative AI to the office


Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In what has become a race to incorporate generative AI across their products, Microsoft and Google are both announcing efforts this week that will allow businesses to harness the technology in conjunction with their proprietary data.

Why it matters: While competition is often good for customers, some worry that peer pressure is prompting companies to rush deployment of an unproven technology replete with risks and unknowns.

Driving the news: Google today announced several tools to allow businesses to use generative AI as a way to discover and synthesize corporate data. It also previewed how its productivity suite, Google Workspace, will incorporate AI to help compose e-mails, rewrite letters and create marketing materials.

  • Microsoft, meanwhile, has a customer event on Thursday where it is expected to unveil new ways for its business users to harness generative AI in the coming months, including within Office apps such as Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint.

The big picture: Companies large and small are rushing to integrate generative AI in their products. Salesforce, for example, announced plans last week to incorporate such tools throughout its customer relationship software and to partner with OpenAI to bring ChatGPT to Slack.

Between the lines: The tech companies are trying to thread a fine needle — moving quickly to show customers that they're first with the latest trend, while also taking time to test the products with a few trusted customers before unleashing them more broadly.

  • That's important both because there are a lot of unknowns related to the fast-evolving technology, and because it could easily be used to aggravate already-big problems like misinformation and phishing scams.

Even the timing of generative AI announcements has become a point of competition.

  • After Microsoft announced last week that it was holding an event this Thursday to talk about AI in the workplace, Google subsequently scheduled today's news and briefed reporters on it Monday.

A similar storyline played out last month. as both Google and Microsoft looked to show how generative AI could reshape the search business.

Be smart: This is a marathon, not a sprint. Companies have spent years getting the technology to this point, and perfecting it will take time, too.

  • Few will care down the line who said what with a day's lead time. What will count is whether the companies developing these powerful technologies are taking adequate steps to address serious issues around safety, privacy and equity.

Microsoft, Google and Salesforce all stress they are making their AI technology first available to a few customers, with whom they will work closely to identify bugs and improve features.

  • However, critics say business concerns will inevitably take precedence. "The more money that flows in, the faster people are moving the goal posts and removing the guardrails," attorney Matthew Butterick told Axios. Butterick is involved in lawsuits against several companies, including Microsoft's GitHub, over how their generative AI systems operate.
  • Platformer reported Monday that Microsoft has disbanded an Ethics and Society team within its responsible AI team. An October reorganization had already moved most workers into product teams.
  • “The pressure from [CTO] Kevin [Scott] and [CEO] Satya [Nadella] is very very high to take these most recent openAI models and the ones that come after them and move them into customers' hands at a very high speed," Microsoft VP John Montgomery told the team members at a meeting at the time of the reorganization, per audio obtained by Platformer.
  • In 2020 Google forced out AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru, who says she was fired for raising questions about the company's algorithms and practices. Over several months a number of other workers on that team either quit or were fired.

Yes, but: Microsoft notes it has continued to increase its investment in responsible AI even as the way that it does so has evolved.

Meanwhile: A new study being released by KPMG today finds that 85% of businesses surveyed expect to be using more AI in the coming years, but nearly two-thirds say they don't have a formalized function in their company to manage AI risks

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