Google announces AI features in Gmail, Docs and more to match Microsoft

Google has announced a range of upcoming generative AI features for its various Workspace apps, including Google Docs, Gmail, Sheets, and Slides.

Features include new ways to generate text, summarize and brainstorm with AI in Google Docs (similar to how many people use OpenAI’s ChatGPT), the option to generate full emails in Gmail from short bullet points of users, and the ability to use AI images, audio, and video to illustrate presentations in Slides (similar to features in both Microsoft Designer, powered by OpenAI’s DALL-E, and Canva, powered by Stable Diffusion).

The announcement shows Google’s eagerness to catch up with the competition in the new AI race. Since the arrival of ChatGPT last year and Microsoft’s launch of its chatbot-enabled Bing in February, the search giant has been pushing to launch similar AI features. The company reportedly declared a “code red” in December, with senior management directing staff to add AI tools to all of its user products, which are used by billions of people, within months.

But Google is definitely racing ahead on its own. While the company has announced a slew of new features, only the first of these – AI writing tools in Docs and Gmail – will be made available to a group of US-based “trusted testers” this month. (This is also how Google announced availability for ChatGPT rival Bard.) Google says this and other features will be made available to the public later in the year, but hasn’t specified when.

You can see the full list of AI-powered features that Google says will be coming to Workspace apps in the future below:

  • Draft, reply, summarize and prioritize your Gmail
  • Brainstorm, proofread, write, and rewrite in Docs
  • Bring your creative vision to life with automatically generated images, audio, and video in Slides
  • Move from raw data to insights and analysis through auto-completion, formula generation, and contextual categorization in Sheets
  • Generate new backgrounds and capture notes in Meet
  • Enable workflows to get things done in Chat

An example of AI in Google Docs converting a prompt into a full job description.
Image: Google

Of all the new features, the AI ​​writing and brainstorming tools in Docs and Gmail seem to be the most potentially useful. In an example demo (GIF above), a user is presented with a “Help me write” prompt and then enters a request: “Vacancy for a regional sales representative.” The AI ​​system then completes the job specification for them in seconds, allowing them to edit and refine the text.

Google elaborates on these potential features in its press release: “Whether you’re a busy HR professional who needs to create custom job descriptions, or a parent crafting your child’s pirate-themed birthday party invitation, Workspace saves you the time and difficulty of writing that first draft. Just type in a topic you want to write about and a draft will be generated for you instantly. With your collaborating AI partner, you can continue to refine and edit, and get more suggestions as needed.”

A similar feature allows users to rewrite or extend text using AI tools. So, says Google, you could write a few bullet points about a work meeting. Google Docs can then expand this into a “more polished summary”, where users can manually specify the tone (whether it should be “more whimsical” or “formal”, for example). In a video demo, Google demonstrates AI being used to write personalized marketing messages for customers, convert bullet points into a full email, and summarize the content of a long email chain in Gmail. (Again, these are somewhat familiar features. Slack recently announced that it will use ChatGPT to create similar discussion summaries, for example.)

A GIF showing Google’s AI tools in Gmail with bullet points.

Notably, Microsoft is rumored to be building similar features into its Office suite of apps, including Word, Teams, and Outlook. Microsoft upset Google this year with the launch of the new Bing. CEO Satya Nadella described AI-assisted search as a new paradigm that could overthrow Google. But it looks like the two companies will also compete in the world of productivity software. Microsoft has scheduled an event where it will outline its plans for “the future of working with AI” later this week on March 16.

Of course, the rush to launch AI products also has its dangers. AI text-generating programs are notoriously unreliable, often “hallucinating” false information and presenting it with complete confidence. They are also prone to regurgitating racial and gender biases in their training data.

As Google integrates this technology into its enterprise software, these shortcomings can cause major problems. What if Google’s AI summaries of your meetings misattribute quotes or ideas, for example? Or if your AI-generated marketing emails come up with new customers or products? In today’s press release, Google offered a standard disclaimer: “Sometimes the Al gets things wrong, sometimes it pleases you with something unusual, and often it needs guidance.” But while users may see the funny side of Microsoft’s Bing chatbot derail, they may take less kindly to an “unusual” AI that costs them money.

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