How AI is making people’s workday more productive

Writing requires a dash of uniquely human creativity. Artificial intelligence alone cannot do it for us, at least not very well. But AI can – and already is – helping us do things like make sure we spell words correctly and use correct grammar, through the myriad ways it is infused across the suite of Microsoft 365 products. Some of them were even used to craft this story.

As the AI in these products is becoming more sophisticated, they are helping us do more than spot a misspelled word.

That includes new intelligent features in Microsoft Word that help us design our documents for maximum readability, along with other features in Microsoft Search and Microsoft Edge that aim to make everybody’s workday more productive. Microsoft showcased these intelligent features today at Microsoft Build, an annual conference for developers, in Seattle.

“Microsoft AI is all about amplifying human ingenuity with intelligent technologies,” said Malavika Rewari, a senior product marketing manager for Microsoft 365.

Microsoft 365 uses AI to help employees overcome some of the realities of modern work, including increasing time demands, overwhelming amounts of data and growing security threats, she noted.

Gathering knowledge

One modern reality of work is age old: a need for knowledge. The difference is that today’s workers turn to the internet to learn, and more than half start with a search engine.

Beginning on May 28, Microsoft Search will move to general availability, the company announced at Build. The technology brings access to the web and work into a single search experience.

Microsoft Search leverages the AI capabilities of Bing and Microsoft Graph, one of the largest collections of data about how people work ever created, enabling workers to find, command, navigate and discover items across their organization’s network of data.

Microsoft Graph includes data from the public internet as well as data available only to employees within an organization such as directories and policy manuals. What’s more, every employee’s graph is distinctive since it contains data that is available only to their specific team, such as documents, and data from their email and calendar.

“We are able to deliver a cohesive search experience that works across any endpoint in Microsoft 365,” said Bill Baer, a senior product marketing manager on the Microsoft Search team. “Whether you are searching in Bing or searching in the Windows 10 search bar, you’ll get a set of contextually relevant results.”

New intelligence in Microsoft Search includes a machine reading comprehension capability that can extract a paragraph from documents explicitly related to your question. For example, if an employee asks, “Can I bring my dog to work?” Microsoft Search will extract the relevant paragraph from the human resources manual and present it as a search result.

“It understands the question you are asking, and then it can find the answer within millions of words of text and give it to you in context,” said Baer.

Another new intelligent feature allows people within a company to conduct people searches with incomplete information. For example, consider being told, “Talk to Pat on the third floor,” and not knowing who Pat is. A search on “Pat, floor 3” uses intelligence from Microsoft Graph such as your immediate team and location to return the most likely Pat, including an office number and picture.

Working on Microsoft Edge

Microsoft, which recently announced plans to adopt the Chromium open source project in the development of Microsoft Edge on the desktop, also is working on ways to make the Edge browser a more natural extension of the Microsoft Search experience, noted Baer. That means users who are signed in to a Microsoft 365 account will be able to see related results within the Edge browser.

The Microsoft Edge team is also experimenting with a feature called Collections that allows users to compile and organize content as they browse the internet in their open browser window and intelligently share the compiled content via email or export it to Excel or Word.

For example, a person shopping for a new camera could visit several product websites and save each page in the Collections pane on the side of the browser. The underlying machine learning in Collections would intelligently display an image of each model along with relevant metadata such as price, user rating and the website where the data originated.

From there, a user could email the list to a friend, or copy and paste the collection elsewhere, maintaining the clean format of the content. Another option is to export to Excel, where the machine learning automatically populates a table organized with columns for brand, model, price, rating and so on based on the collected metadata.

“You can easily, at a glance, get the value and make your decision more quickly,” said Divya Kumar, group product marketing manager for Microsoft Edge. She added that the team is experimenting with similar functionality for exporting to Word, including the ability to compile a document with information such as images and text collected from several websites, citations included.

Better Word documents

Beginning this fall, people working in Word Online who are in search of inspiration and insights on how to make their document better will be able to receive intelligent suggestions with Ideas – a feature that is already making people more productive in PowerPoint and Excel.

The Ideas in Word feature uses machine learning and intelligence from Microsoft Graph to help users write polished prose, create more professional documents and efficiently navigate documents created by others.

For example, feedback and signals from Microsoft Graph indicate that workers generally ignore tools available in Word to structure their documents, such as section heads, but rather manually make some words bold and bigger to indicate a new section.

“Here’s something where we say, ‘Hey, we understand the structure of your document. We can make it navigable, or we could create a table of contents on your behalf,’” explained Kirk Gregersen, a partner director of program management in Microsoft’s Experiences and Devices group.

Other intelligent suggestions include recommended acronyms based on their usage in Microsoft Graph, calculated average time to read the document, highlight extraction, as well as familiar fixes for spelling and grammatical errors and advice on more concise and inclusive language such as “police officer” instead of “policeman.”

Neural rewrites

A recently available intelligent feature in Word is rewrite suggestions, which brings the power of deep learning to offer suggestions on different ways to write a phrase.

The technology builds on enhancements to the popular synonyms feature in Word that use machine learning to understand the context of the sentence the word appears in to offer alternative word choices that are more relevant.

“You don’t need to search online to find an alternative way to express a phrase,” said Zhang Li, a senior program manager in the Microsoft Office team, explaining that the intelligence service will surface suggestions within the document.

His team used similar technology to improve synonym ranking earlier this year, leading the synonym suggestion acceptance rate to double.

“We want to augment your skills,” said Rewari, the senior product marketing manager for Microsoft 365. “We want to help you communicate more efficiently, effectively and inclusively.”

Top video: The Ideas in Word feature uses machine learning and intelligence from Microsoft Graph to help a user style a table for a professional document.


John Roach writes about Microsoft research and innovation. Follow him on Twitter.