Microsoft Surface Exec Discusses Copilot+ AI, Windows Future, & Apple's Impact

(Image credit: Future)

This week, the highly anticipated Microsoft Build 2024 developer conference got underway with a bang as CEO Satya Nadella unveiled the Surface Pro 11 and Surface Laptop 7, two brand-new Surface devices.

These are significant gadgets because they are the first Surface PCs that Microsoft has sold with Snapdragon X Plus and Snapdragon X Elite processors, which are Qualcomm CPUs. Additionally, as the majority of the finest Windows laptops now on the market are powered by Intel Meteor Lake CPUs, those chipsets might result in notable battery life gains over those models.

In an effort to increase PC sales, Microsoft and its hardware partners are placing a new wave of Copilot+ PCs on shop shelves this summer, and the new Surface tablets are the first of them. Microsoft states that a Windows computer must have a minimum of 16GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, and a CPU with an NPU that can do at least 40+ trillion operations per second (TOPS) in order to be designated as a Copilot+ PC.

Every new Snapdragon X CPU features an NPU with 45 TOPS, and more Copilot+ PCs with even more TOPS should be released this year. I'm not so sure why someone would be interested in acquiring or upgrading to a Copilot+ PC.

Microsoft has added capabilities to Windows 11 that are exclusive to Copilot+ PCs in an apparent attempt to increase adoption. At Build this week, Microsoft unveiled four new tools designed specifically for Copilot+ PCs. Among them is the Recall feature, which lets you view a visual history of your PC activity over the previous several days and see which programs you were using for what tasks at what times.

It's a useful tool, albeit a little unsettling in terms of privacy, but not enough to convince me to upgrade to a Copilot+ PC. During Build 2024, I had the opportunity to interact directly with both Surface devices. Although the Surface Pro 11's new OLED screen wowed me, I'm not clear why Microsoft is moving Windows in this direction or why someone who isn't already enthusiastic about AI would want to upgrade to a Copilot+ PC.

Fortunately, I was able to speak with a Microsoft executive face-to-face. Pete Kyriacou, CVP and Surface Product Manager, and I had a conversation about the company's AI initiatives and the direction it's taking with Copilot+ PCs during Build.

Naturally, I also had to inquire as to how Microsoft's decision to focus heavily on AI-focused laptops with SoCs and NPUs was affected by the rivalry from Apple's top MacBooks. Since Apple has been including the Neural Engine in its laptops and phones for years, Copilot+ PCs are essentially characterized by their desire for a PC with an NPU.

ElectronicBD: Why should someone upgrade to a PC with an NPU?

Microsoft's Pete Kyriacou. (Image credit: Microsoft)

Pete Kyriacou: Yes, it seems like we've gone a long way. Since you began manufacturing CPU-based PCs back in the day, this is what's occurring. To start an application, therefore, you would need to know how to execute a DOS prompt. As a result, there were very few individuals [who] could use a PC and very few things you could accomplish with one.

With the advent of vector-based graphics, the number of individuals who could utilize a PC increased in addition to increasing your interaction options—you could now run 3D models, play games, and do other exciting things. To launch something, all you had to do was double-click on an icon; you don't need to know how to utilize the DOS prompt.

Since Satya [Nadella] demonstrated the capabilities of a PC with a natural user interface [NUI], NPUs will allow for much more expansion of that. For example, you may not be familiar with pivot tables or what Excel does, but if you ask the computer to "analyze this data, for me," you're expanding the range of input and output that may be produced by the computer.

Subsequently, it also begins to be purpose-built; for example, fantastic models that are now capable of running on GPUs will drain resources and suck up battery life. One of the best examples is when Pavan demonstrated Xbox developer capabilities when Microsoft Flight Simulator was running. In the meanwhile, the NPU was able to communicate with the player of the game by asking questions such as, "Hey, do you want to know what airport to land at?" and provide more in-game support. Flight Simulator consumes resources and GPU power, hence running AI models concurrently is not recommended. As a result, these specially designed models may operate on the NPU.

TG: What does the future hold for a Natural User Interface for Windows if this is only the beginning? Do you believe that users will be able to ask their PC questions and make natural language requests, for instance?

Copilot+ Live Translation feature in action. (Image credit: Microsoft)

Kyriacou: Yes, it would be wonderful if it were an aspirational aim. The Copilot prompt now has the added feature of being able to be typed, written in, or spoken. Also, the language is natural.

For a considerable amount of time, Windows has been multimodal, particularly on Surface devices. We have excellent touchpads and keyboards, followed by touchscreens and ink. Voice recognition will be the next advancement.

Thus, it's only the logical development of what you're discussing. because you can communicate using natural language by typing at first, using ink later, and speaking thereafter. You'll probably be able to use Copilot instinctively because of the normal language, although there will be certain stages that you skip along the way.

The interesting thing about this, in my opinion, is that accessibility is something we prioritize throughout all of Microsoft, and Windows in particular, and we're working hard to ensure speech becomes a first-class citizen for people of all abilities.

Furthermore, we've seen that members of our community with a range of input skills may utilize Copilot to expedite their input. Our accessibility lab's director, David Dame, told me that he can now reply to emails and provide employee input 20 times faster than he could previously. The amount of typing you would have to attempt, or the vocal input he would attempt, would be greater than if you could just ask Copilot to create a document in Word with a few bullet points, and he would then add his own voice at the end.

TG: While Copilot and other Windows AI implementations appear promising, they're not flawless—I still run into mistakes while using them. How long do you think it will take until this technology is precise enough for corporate use?

The Microsoft Surface Laptop 7 running Copilot demos on a table at Microsoft HQ. (Image credit: Future)

Kyriacou :In terms of accuracy, I couldn't make any claims about that number, especially in light of the work we've done integrating content-relevant data with Copilot and Bing. Information was timestamped to a prior period before, but it is now nearly real-time.

We are seeing that Copilot for corporate provides excellent access to corporate clients who are committed to the data inside their surroundings. Additionally, we're seeing a lot of Copilot for Business users who can access those files utilizing the Copilot for Business information and leverage SharePoint data. Then, Windows comes with a more general copilot that accesses the internet as it goes, and accuracy is excellent, as far as I'm concerned. Once more, I won't put a figure on it, but it's always something that someone should look into at the very end while attempting to achieve their goals.

For my own use, I think it's fantastic to be able to select the information I need and utilize it the way I want. Additionally, Copilot in general and Copilot in Office—that is, Copilot and [Microsoft] 365—have been fantastic.

TG: Given how frequently MacBooks with M-series CPUs are beating Windows computers, have you felt any pressure from Apple?

MacBooks have been outpacing Windows laptops since Apple put an M1 chip inside the MacBook Air in 2020, but the MacBooks Pros with M-series chips are the true powerhouses now. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Kyriacou: That's an excellent query. The industry at large has been preoccupied with the question of what excellent silicon really means and how to utilize it to deliver the NPU in addition to power and performance.

Customers are our first priority, and they have requested longer battery life. The performance is what they've requested. We believe that we have achieved something exceptional with this NPU, in addition to the power and performance we have added and the all-day battery life. We believe we've been at the forefront of that since the 2019 release of the Surface Pro X, which included the NPU. You do realize that it was correcting eye contact? Now that eye contact correction is included into [Windows] Studio Effects, we're taking it a step further with some capabilities we didn't cover today. In addition, there are some more sophisticated functions that make use of the NPU.

Yes, there's the traditional eye contact one and the recently developed teleprompter. This allows you to read a teleprompter from side to side while maintaining eye focus on the camera. Therefore, it seems like we're setting the example here.

It gets to the 2-in-1 as well. Take a peek at what we've got. Our touchpad now has haptics, and we've had haptics in our pen and F-row (the row of function buttons) for a very long time.

You inquired about our ability to compete with those who, you know, manufacture excellent gadgets at Apple, and I think that's fantastic. However, I'd like to think that we're setting the standard for the 2-in-1 and that we'll keep pushing the envelope and dominating the market with our power, performance, and now NPU.

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