Google’s AI tools embrace the Clippy dream

The words “it looks like you are writing a letter, would you like some help with that?” did not appear at any point during Google’s recent demo of its AI tools for office suites. But as I watched Aparna Pappu, Google’s Workspace lead, outline the feature on stage at I/OI was reminded of a certain animated paper clip that another tech giant once hoped would usher in a new era of office work.

Even Microsoft would admit that Clippy’s legacy isn’t entirely positive, but the virtual assistant is forever associated with a particular work period – one filled to the brim with laborious emails, artwork, and beige computers with clunky hard drives . Now the work has changed — it’s Slack pings, text cursors jostling in a Google Doc, and students who don’t know what file systems are — and as generative AI creeps into our professional lives, both Google and Microsoft recognize that it calls for a new era of tools to get things done.

Google is about committed 10 minutes from the developer conference keynote to what it’s now calling “Duet AI for Google Workspace,” a collection of AI-integrated tools it builds into its productivity apps — Gmail, Docs, Slides, Sheets, etc. Most of the features were previously announced in March, but the demonstration she showed in more detail. Examples included being able to generate a draft job description in Docs with just a few prompts, creating a schedule for a dog walking service in Sheets, and even generating images to illustrate a presentation in Slides.

New to the I/O presentation was Sidekick, a feature designed to understand what you’re working on, bring together details from Google’s various apps, and provide you with clear information that you can use as notes or even directly into record your work.

If Google’s Duet is designed to deal with the horror of a blank document, then Sidekick seems to be looking ahead to a future where a black AI prompt box could be the intimidating first hurdle instead. “What if AI could proactively give you directions?” Pappu said as she introduced the new feature. “Even better, what if these prompts were actually contextual and changed based on what you were working on?”

“What if AI could proactively give you directions?”

In a live demonstration that followed, the audience was shown how Sidekick could analyze a children’s story of about two paragraphs, provide a summary, and then provide directions for continuing it. Clicking on one of these prompts (“What happened to the golden seashell?”) revealed three possible directions for the story. Clicking “insert” added these as bullet points to the story to serve as a reference for the writing in progress. It can also suggest an image and then generate it as illustration.

Next, Sidekick was shown summarizing a series of emails. When asked, it was able to extract specific details from a linked Sheets spreadsheet and insert them into an email response. And finally, on Slides, Sidekick suggested generating speaker notes that the presenter can read while showing the slides.

The feature looks like a modern spin on Clippy, Microsoft’s old assistant that would spring into action at the mere hint of activity in a Word document to ask if you wanted help with tasks like writing a letter. Google’s Duet is certainly in a different league, both in terms of reading comprehension and the quality of text its generative AI spews out. But Clippy’s basic spirit – identifying what you’re trying to do and offering to help – remains.

But perhaps more important How Sidekick was shown offering this information. In the Google demonstration, Sidekick is summoned by the user and does not appear until he presses the icon. That’s important, because one of the things that annoyed people most about Clippy was that it wouldn’t shut up. “These toon zombies are just as insistent on resurfacing as Wile E. Coyote,” The New York Times noticed in the original review of Office 97.

“These toon zombies are just as insistent on resurfacing as Wile E. Coyote”

Although they share some similarities, Clippy and Sidekick belong to two very different computer eras. Clippy was designed for an era when many people bought their first home desktop computers using office software for the first time. New York Magazine cites a Microsoft postmortem that says part of the problem was that the assistant was “optimized for first use” – potentially useful the first time you saw it, but intensely annoying every time after that.

Fast forward to 2023, and these tools are now familiar but exhausting in the capabilities they provide. We are no longer just sitting, typing, printing and emailing, but are collaborating across platforms, bringing together endless streams of data and trying to produce a coherent output in multimedia splendour.

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 writing a letter in Google Docs. They’re there because you’ve already written hundreds of letters and you don’t want to spend your whole life writing hundreds of letters by hand. They’re not there to show that Slides has a speaker notes feature; they are there to fill it for you.

Google Workspace’s Duet AI or Microsoft Office’s Copilot don’t seem interested in teaching you the basics of using their software. They are there to automate the process. Clippy’s ghost lives on, but in a world that no longer needs a paper clip to tell you how to write a letter.

Microsoft Clippy disabled by default with the release of Office XP in 2001 and removed the assistant completely in 2007. In between these points, the philosopher Nick Bostrom outlined his now famous paperclip maximization thought experiment, which warned of the existential risk of AI even if it was given a supposedly harmless target (making paperclips). Clippy isn’t making a comeback, but his ghost – now AI-animated – lives on. Let’s hope it’s still harmless.