May 20, 2024 - Technology

Microsoft promises AI will give PCs total recall

Animated illustration of a laptop that shakes before a robotic arm holding a folder comes out of the screen.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Microsoft's opening pitch for the AI era of the PC is simple: Your new Windows machine can find that thing you saw once on screen, even if you don't remember where you saw it.

Why it matters: Microsoft is convinced that AI will reshape computing in ways we can barely fathom, but first it needs a few tangible examples to prove that potential.

Driving the news: A new Windows 11 feature, called Recall, took center stage at an event Monday, where Microsoft also introduced a new Copilot+ branding designed to indicate the PCs most capable of handling AI tasks.

  • Recall is like bestowing a photographic memory on everyone who buys a Copilot+ PC, Microsoft consumer marketing chief Yusuf Mehdi told Axios.
  • "Anything you've ever seen or done, you'll now more or less be able to find," Mehdi said in an interview.

How it works: Recall uses a variety of small language models running in combination on the PC itself. That's in contrast to chatbots like OpenAI's ChatGPT or Google's Gemini, which use large language models running in the cloud.

  • Microsoft says that approach offers better performance, shorter delay, more privacy, and cost and environmental benefits.

Users can type in details about the file they're looking to locate or use a slider to view the PC's digital memory chronologically.

  • Once they find what they want, they can save the image or text directly from the Recall feature or open the underlying file, all without having to know where it's stored.
  • Under the hood, Windows will take frequent screenshots, decode text in images and chronicle what's happening in meetings — making it easier to rediscover a moment in time later.
  • For those who don't want everything they do logged and stored, Microsoft allows people to delete specific snapshots, choose specific websites or apps not to include in Recall, and to snooze the feature for a particular period of time.

Yes, but: Because all data is stored locally, Recall only works on a single machine, and the information can't be accessed from a phone or other devices — at least for now.

  • Also, Recall's memory starts with the purchase of a new Copilot+ PC.
  • You can't upgrade older machines because they lack the added neural processor needed for Recall and other AI features.
  • The same goes for pretty much every other PC being sold today, though Intel says it will have Copilot+ capable chips on the market starting in the third quarter.
  • Microsoft said it is working on a means for people to move Recall memory from one Copilot+ PC to a new one, as well as exploring if there are ways that make sense to allow the feature to work across devices.

The big picture: Microsoft also introduced two new Microsoft Surface computers and demoed Copilot+ laptops from Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Samsung.

  • All the PCs shown Monday use a new generation of processors from Qualcomm, which has long sought to expand from cell phone chips to a place inside mainstream laptops.
  • Microsoft is counting on new AI features to boost demand for PCs and help Windows better compete against Apple's Mac line.

Between the lines: Mehdi said Recall draws inspiration from earlier eras of both computing and science fiction. Pioneering computer scientist Gordon Bell, for example, has long extolled the virtues of logging one's entire life.

  • A more primitive version of Recall, dubbed Time Machine, allows Macs to find files from a particular point in time. Time Machine, which debuted as part of Mac OS X Leopard in 2007, has been pitched as a better form of backup, rather than a means for frequent retrieval of information.
  • Mehdi said that, for him, Recall is like a digital diary, showing him what he did and how he spent his time.
  • "It's almost like time travel to go back and remind myself of things I've done," he said.
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