Microsoft’s new Copilot AI agents act as virtual workers to automate tasks

Microsoft will soon allow companies and developers to build AI-powered copilots that can work as virtual workers and perform tasks automatically. Instead of Copilot sitting idly by waiting for queries, it will be able to do things like monitor email inboxes and automate a series of tasks or data entry that employees would normally have to do manually.

It’s a major change in Copilot’s behavior in what the industry commonly calls AI agents, or the ability of chatbots to intelligently perform complex tasks autonomously.

“We quickly realized that limiting Copilot to just conversation was extremely limiting in what Copilot can do today,” explained Charles Lamanna, corporate vice president of business apps and platforms at Microsoft, in an interview with The edge. “Rather than having a Copilot sitting there waiting for someone to chat with it, why not make your Copilot more proactive and work in the background on automated tasks?”

Microsoft’s new Copilot Studio homepage.
Image: Microsoft

Microsoft is previewing this new capability today to a very small group of early access testers, ahead of a public preview in Copilot Studio later this year. Businesses can create a Copilot agent that can handle IT helpdesk service tasks, employee onboarding, and more. “Copilots are evolving from copilots who work with you to copilots who work for you,” Microsoft said in a blog post.

These Copilot agents are triggered by certain events and work with a company’s own data. Here’s how Microsoft describes a potential Copilot for employee onboarding:

Imagine you are a new employee. A proactive co-pilot greets you, analyzes HR data and answers your questions, introduces you to your buddy, gives you the training and deadlines, helps you with the forms and sets up your first week of meetings. Now HR and employees can work on their regular tasks, without the hassle of administration.

This kind of automation will obviously lead to questions about job losses and fears about where AI is going. Lamanna states that Copilot agents can remove the repetitive and mundane tasks of jobs, such as data entry, rather than replacing jobs entirely.

“What makes a job, what makes a role? It’s a lot of different tasks and overall it’s a very large number of very diverse and heterogeneous tasks. If someone were to do one thing over and over again, it would probably already be automated by today’s technology,” says Lamanna. “We think that with Copilot and Copilot Studio, some tasks will be completely automated… but the good news is that most of the things that are being automated are things that no one really wants to do.”

Microsoft’s argument that it only wants to reduce the boring parts of your work sounds idealistic for now, but with the ongoing battle for AI dominance between tech companies, it feels like we’re increasingly on the brink of more than just basic automation. Lamanna believes that human judgment and collaboration are still important parts of getting work done and that not everything will be suitable for automation.

There are also still a lot of problems with generative AI at the moment, especially around hallucinations where it just confidently makes things up. Microsoft says it has built some controls into Copilot Studio for this AI agent push so that Copilot doesn’t just become unreliable and automates tasks freely. That’s a big concern we’ve already seen play out with Meta’s own AI advertising tools failing and blowing away money.

Agents in Copilot Studio.
Image: Microsoft

You can build Microsoft’s Copilot agents with the ability to flag certain scenarios for people to review, which will be useful for more complex queries and data. All this means that Copilot must operate within the boundaries of what is defined and the instructions and actions associated with these automated tasks.

Microsoft is also making it easier for businesses to put their own data into their custom Copilot, with data connections to public websites, SharePoint, OneDrive, and more. This is part of a broader effort within Microsoft to make Copilot more than just a chatbot that generates things.

“Copilot in 2023 – and Microsoft – was very focused on sifting through your data, summarizing your content, and generating new content. We think that Copilot will be very focused on customization in 2024,” says Lamanna. New Copilot extensions will enable some of this customization, allowing developers to build connectors that extend Copilot to all enterprise systems.

Microsoft also wants Copilot to work more with groups of people, instead of these one-on-one experiences that have existed for the past year. A new Team Copilot feature allows the assistant to manage agendas and meeting notes, moderate long team chats, or help assign tasks and track deadlines in Microsoft Planner. Microsoft plans to preview Team Copilot later this year.

At Google I/O last week, the search giant also showed off some early concepts for its own AI agents that automate tasks for you, demonstrating how Gmail users could use an AI agent to automatically fill out a returns form for some shoes and someone collects them.

The big question that remains is how all these AI agents will work in reality. We continually see AI fail at simple text prompts, provide incorrect answers to questions, or add extra fingers to images. Do businesses and consumers really trust it enough to automate tasks in the background? I guess we’ll find out soon.

Notepad by Tom Warren /

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