Microsoft has announced more AI or machine learning is coming to Word. It’s an extension of the Insights and Designer features already in Excel 365 and PowerPoint 365.
The features haven’t been released yet even to fast track Insiders so we only have Microsoft’s word (no pun intended) on how they’ll work. Word Ideas will first appear in Word Online in June then later in Word for Windows, Mac etc.
We have our concerns, based on how similar features already work in Excel and PowerPoint.
We’ll skip past all the meaningless, vague corporate drivel like “Microsoft AI is all about amplifying human ingenuity with intelligent technologies,” and dig out some hard info about what’s coming.
This will suggest words, phrases and formatting based on what you’re typing.
Spelling and Grammar errors are already marked ‘on the fly’ but Microsoft is implying that will change with new cloud based analysis.
Certain words can be flagged as inappropriate such as “police officer” instead of “policeman”. Presumably that will be an option because otherwise it’s likely to annoy a lot of men women people.
Acronyms will be suggested to make text more concise. Again, not sure that’s entirely a good thing.
Better synonym support is supposed to suggest alternative word or phrases based on the context and sentence not just the single word.
Formatting of tables will be suggested though we already have that in a non-AI way with the Table Style Gallery.
Most interesting and useful will be suggestions to make better use of Word’s features. Ideas is supposed to detect when people are using large font or bold for headings and suggest a Heading style instead. Once the document has a recognizable structure, it can suggest a Table of Contents and other goodies.
As expected, Microsoft is presenting these innovations as an absolute good with no downside but there are things to keep in mind.
We know most users don’t seem to be concerned about document privacy but it’s worth keeping in mind. For any of these AI features to work, parts or whole documents are sent to Microsoft who can collect that information and send it to others without your knowledge. The latest hype from Microsoft and the Build conference keynote were notable for not even hinting at customer concerns about that.
Microsoft as language police
Detecting spelling and grammar mistakes is great, up to a point. Increasingly the MS Office suggestions are intrusive and overstepping their place. The ‘ideas’ are based on American style corporate language preferences which isn’t what many users want or need (and that’s just considering English language issues!). Some fundamental problems with Word Grammar system make linguistic style variations harder to do. The risk is that documents start getting a bland, sameness as people accept the same Microsoft’s suggestions over and over again.
This feature is promoted as “helping you write better” which can also mean ‘”helping you write in the same bland way as Microsoft.”
Enforcing looks and styles – Similarly with design and formatting choices. Too many Word documents and PowerPoint presentations look depressingly similar because they reuse the same small set of templates and suggestions from Office.
Here’s the short Microsoft video.