Google’s AI Tools Grabs the Dream of Clippy

    Google’s AI office suite demo did not include the words “it appears you are writing a letter. Would you like help with that?” As I watched Aparna Papu, Google Workspace’s leader, describe the feature onstage at, it reminded me of an animated paperclip which another tech giant hoped would usher in a whole new era of work.

    Microsoft admits that Clippy isn’t a legacy they are proud of, but it is a reminder of dreary emails, clipart, and old beige computers. The work environment has changed. It’s now Slack, Google Docs with text cursors jostling, and students who do not know what file system is. As generative AI creeps in to our professional lives, Google and Microsoft recognize that a new generation of tools are needed.

    Google devoted about 10 mins of its developer conference keynote on what it calls ” duet AI for Google Workspace,” an assortment of AI-infused apps it’s building in its productivity apps — Gmail, Docs. Slides. Sheets. The demo showed off features that were announced in March. Some examples include being able create a job description for a dog-walking business using just a few prompts in Docs, creating a schedule in Sheets and even generating images in Slides to illustrate a slide.

    Sidekick was a new feature for the I/O presentations. It is a tool that understands what you are working on and pulls together information from Google’s various apps to present to you as clear notes or to incorporate directly into your own work.

    Google Duet was designed to help users deal with the fear of a blank page, but Sidekick is looking to the future when a black box with AI prompts could be the first obstacle. Pappu asked as she announced the new feature: “What if AI offered you prompts proactively?” “Even more, what if the prompts were contextual and changed depending on what you are working on?”

    What if AI offered you proactive prompts?

    The audience watched a live demonstration in which Sidekick was demonstrated to analyze a two-paragraph children’s tale, summarize it, and suggest ways of continuing the story. By clicking on the prompt (“What happened to that golden seashell?”), three possible directions were shown for the story. By clicking “insert”, these bullet points were added to the story as references for the writing. It can also generate an image to illustrate the story.

    The next step was to show Sidekick summarizing an email chain. It was able, when prompted, to extract specific details from a Sheets spreadsheet associated with the email and insert them in an email response. Sidekick also suggested that Slides generate speaker notes so the presenter can read them while showing the slide show.

    This feature is a modern take on Clippy – Microsoft’s former assistant who would ask for help when a Word document was active. Google Duet is in a league of its own, in terms of both the reading comprehension of Duet and the quality text it generates. Clippy’s basic spirit — identifying your task and offering help — is still there.

    is perhaps less important than the way Sidekick presented this information. In Google’s demo, Sidekick appears only after the user presses its icon. This is important because Clippy’s inability to shut up was one of the most annoying things about it. The New York Times noted that “these toon-zombies” are just as persistent as Wile E.Coyote in their original review of Office 97.

    These toon-zombies keep popping up like Wile E.Coyote.

    Clippy was designed for an era when many people were buying their first desktop computers at home. Clippy was designed for an era where many people were buying their first desktop computers for the home and using the office software for a first time. New York Magazine quotes a Microsoft postmortem which says that part of the problem was the assistant being “optimized” for the first use. It was helpful at first but became increasingly annoying after that.

    In 2023, these tools will be familiar to us but their possibilities are endless. No longer do we sit and type, print and email, but rather collaborate across platforms and bring together endless data streams to create a cohesive output in multi-media splendor.

    AI features such as Duet, Sidekick and Microsoft’s Copilot feature in Office aren’t designed to teach you how to write an email using Google Docs. You don’t need to manually write hundreds of new letters if you have already written hundreds. These notes are not just there to demonstrate that Slides offers a speaker note feature, but to help you fill it out.

    Microsoft Office Copilot or Google Workspace Duet AI don’t appear to be interested in showing you how to use the software. They are there to automate a process. Clippy’s spirit lives on in a modern world where you don’t need a paperclip anymore to show you how to compose a letter.

    Microsoft disabled Clippy as a default in Office XP 2001, and then removed it completely in 2007. Between these points, philosopher Nick Bostrom described his now-famous paperclip maximiser, which warned about the existential threat posed by AI, even when given a seemingly harmless goal (making papersclips). Clippy may not be making a return, but the spirit of its original program — now animated with AI — still lives on. Hope it’s still safe.

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