Your “Looks like you’re writing a letter, would you like some help with that?” It didn’t appear at any point during Google’s recent demo of its AI office suite tools. But as I watched Aparna Pappu, Google’s workspace leader, outline the feature onstage at I/O, I was reminded of a certain animated paperclip that another tech giant hoped would help usher in a new era of desktop work.
Even Microsoft will concede that Clippy’s legacy isn’t entirely positive, but the virtual assistant is forever tied to a certain period of work—one filled with tedious emails, clip art, and beige PCs with hard disk copies. Now, work has changed—it’s the beeps of Slack, text cursors jostling in a Google Doc, and students who don’t know what file systems are—and with artificial intelligence creeping into our professional lives, both Google and Microsoft are realizing that it requires a new era of tools to get things done.
Google devoted about 10 minutes of its developer keynote to what it now calls “Duet AI for Google Workspace,” a suite of AI-containing tools that it’s building into productivity apps — Gmail, Docs, Slides, Sheets, etc. . The features were previously announced in March, but the demonstration showed them in more detail. Examples included the ability to draft a job description in Docs with just a few prompts, create a dog-walking schedule in Sheets, and even create images to illustrate a presentation in Slides.
New to the I/O show is Sidekick, a feature designed to understand what you’re working on, pull details together across different Google apps, and present clear information for you to use as notes or even integrate directly into your work.
If Google’s Duet is designed to deal with the horror of a blank document, Sidekick seems to be eyeing a future where the black AI prompt box could be the dreaded first hurdle. “What if AI could make prompts for you proactively?” Babu said because she introduced the new feature. Better yet, what if these prompts were actually contextual and changed based on what you were working on?
“What if AI could make prompts for you proactively?”
In a live demonstration that followed, it was shown how Sidekick could parse a children’s story of roughly two paragraphs, provide a summary, and then suggest prompts to continue. Clicking on one of these prompts (“What happened to the golden seashell?”) brought up three possible narrative directions. Clicking “Insert” added them as bullet points to the story to serve as a reference for ongoing writing. It can also suggest and then generate an image as an illustration.
Next, Sidekick was shown summarizing a series of emails. When prompted, it was able to pull specific details from a linked spreadsheet and insert them into an email response. Finally, in presentations, Sidekick suggested creating speaker notes for the presenter to read during the slideshow.
The feature feels like a recent twist on Clippy, the old Microsoft assistant that will spring into action at just a hint of activity in a Word document to ask if you want help with tasks like writing a letter. Google’s Duet is certainly in a different rank, both in terms of its reading comprehension and the quality of the text its generative AI spits out. But the basic ethos of Clippy — identifying what you’re trying to do and offering to help — remains.
But perhaps the most important thing is how Sidekick is shown providing this information. In Google’s demo, Sidekick is invoked by the user and doesn’t appear until they press its icon. This is important because one of the things that annoyed people the most about Clippy is that it just won’t shut up. “This cartoon zombie insists on reappearing as Wile E. Coyote,” New York times It was noted in its original review of Office 97.
This cartoon zombie insists on reappearing as Wile E. Coyote.
Although they share some similarities, Clippy and Sidekick belong to two completely different eras of computing. Clippy was designed for an era when many people were buying their first desktop computers for the home and using office software for the first time. New York Microsoft Magazine cites one post-mortem examination that says part of its problem is that the Assistant is “optimized for first-time use”—potentially useful the first time you saw it but deeply annoying every time thereafter.
Fast forward to 2023, and these tools are familiar now but exhausting in terms of the possibilities they present. We no longer just sit, write, print, and email, we collaborate across platforms, bring together endless streams of data, and try to produce cohesive output in multimedia splendor.
AI features like Duet and Sidekick (not to mention Microsoft’s competing Copilot feature for Office) aren’t there to teach you the basics of how to write a letter in Google Docs. They are there because you have already written hundreds of letters, and you don’t want to spend your life writing hundreds more by hand. They weren’t there to show that Presentations had a speaker notes feature; They are there to fill it in for you.
Google Workspace’s Duet AI or Microsoft Office’s co-pilot don’t seem interested in teaching you the basics of how to use their software. They are there to automate the process. The Clippy spirit lives on, but in a world that has moved from needing a paperclip to telling you how to write a letter.
Microsoft disabled Clippy by default with the release of Office XP in 2001 and removed the assistant entirely in 2007. Between these points, philosopher Nick Bostrom articulated his now-famous paperclip thought experiment, which warned of the existential danger posed by artificial intelligence even if given a supposedly harmless target. (making paper clips). Clippy isn’t coming back, but his spirit – now powered by artificial intelligence – lives on. Let’s hope it’s still harmless.
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