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Microsoft Build 2023: Copilots & Plugins

At this week's kickoff of the big Microsoft AI 2023 developer conference -- oops, sorry, that's "Microsoft Build 2023" developer conference -- it was all copilots and plugins.

Yes, AI took center stage -- and front stage and back stage and all the stages in between.

Why?

Because "You only need two simple letters to accurately convey the major shift in the technology space this year: A and I," according to Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft's chief communications officer, who penned a blog post on Tuesday, May 23, the start of the three-day online/in-person event.

Two major themes permeating the conference are copilots -- AI assistants across a broad swath of products and services -- and plugins, which effectively transform copilots into aggregators, potentially making them one-stop shops for both enterprise and consumer customers.

Plugins
Plugins essentially serve as a bridge between an AI system and the data that a third party wants to keep private or proprietary. Plugins allow Microsoft's copilots to interact with a range of different software and services, enabling developers to build plugins that retrieve real-time information, incorporate company or other business data, and take action on a user's behalf. With a plugin, an AI system can access private files, enabling it to answer a question about business-specific data. This feature is seen as a response to the increasing demand for privacy in the context of generative AI, which could potentially leak sensitive data.

[Click on image for larger view.] Plugins (source: Microsoft).

Plugins recently came to ChatGPT, the sentient-sounding chatbot from Microsoft partner OpenAI, and Microsoft is rolling them out elsewhere, much like how copilots debuted with the GitHub Copilot "AI pair programmer" and are now being disseminated across many products and services, such as the Microsoft 365 suite of office apps. This reporter, for example, is using the Prompt Perfect plugin to help with prompting large language models (LLMs) like GPT-4 that back offerings like ChatGPT. It reformats a user prompt to be more effective. I'm also using WebPilot, which enables ChatGPT to browse the web -- in a limited fashion -- to use information on the internet that normally wouldn't be available because of the chatbot's September 2021 knowledge cut-off date, after which it knows nothing. There are now dozens of plugins for ChatGPT, and Microsoft and others are creating more for other products and services.

[Click on image for larger, animated GIF view.] Invoking Plugins with Microsoft 365 Copilot in Animated Action (source: Microsoft).

Today, Microsoft announced it was working with OpenAI to support and grow the AI plugins ecosystem by embracing an open standard for plugins that integrates across OpenAI's ChatGPT and Microsoft's copilot offerings, which include Bing Chat, Dynamics 365 Copilot, Windows Copilot and Microsoft 365 Copilot.

"Developers can now integrate their apps and services into Microsoft 365 Copilot with plugins to reach hundreds of millions of people where they work every day," Microsoft said in an announcement. "Plugins are tools that augment the capabilities of AI systems, enabling them to interact with APIs from other software and services to retrieve real-time information, incorporate company and other business data, and perform new types of computations."

These come in three types:

  • ChatGPT plugins
  • Teams message extensions
  • Microsoft Power Platform connectors, which enable developers to use existing software and tooling investments and skills

Thousands of line-of-business and third-party plugins will be enabled in the coming months, with more than 50 already being offered to those in the Microsoft 365 Copilot Early Access Program.

Copilots
As far as copilots, the other maine theme of the dev conference, Microsoft announced:

In introducing Windows Copilot, the company said it makes Windows 11 the first PC platform to announce centralized AI assistance for helping users take actions and get things done.

Windows Copilot is deemed so important by Microsoft that CEO Satya Nadella himself announced in a LinkedIn post that it was among more than 50 updates for developers being unveiled at the conference. Other updates he mentioned were bringing Bing to ChatGPT and a new Copilot Stack with common extensibility.

[Click on image for larger view.] Copilot Stack (source: Microsoft).

The latter is described as an AI development framework that helps developers build their own copilots. "This stack includes support for plugins that augment the capabilities of AI systems by allowing them to retrieve real-time information, incorporate company or other business data, perform new types of computations and safely take action on the user's behalf," Microsoft explained.

Copilot Stack was introduced early in the conference by Microsoft's cloud/AI chief, Scott Guthrie, who described them as "the actuators of the digital world."

[Click on image for larger view.] One Plugin Extensibility Model (source: Microsoft).

The new extensibility model was also discussed by Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott, who said copilot development starts with an idea, like any software project, with the difference being the realm of possibilities that the AI development platform enables.

He equated this to the new experiences and services that came with the debut of smartphones, after which many things that were impossible to imagine became possible.

"They went from impossible to hard and because they were hard and really used the capabilities of the new platform, they found enduring success," said Scott, who expects that similarly disruptive applications will be built with the Copilot Stack.

Stay tuned for more AI news -- and maybe even some news about other stuff -- coming from Microsoft Build 2023.

About the Author

David Ramel is an editor and writer for Converge360.

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