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UPDATE 3-Microsoft unveils AI office copilot in fast-moving race with Google

(Adds timing details, explanation of new business chat)

By Jeffrey Dastin

March 16 (Reuters) - Microsoft Corp on Thursday trumpeted its latest plans to put artificial intelligence into the hands of more users, answering a spate of unveilings this week by its rival Google with upgrades to its own widely used office software.

The technology company previewed a new AI "copilot" for Microsoft 365, its product suite that includes Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations and Outlook emails. First open to select business customers for testing, AI will offer a draft in these applications, speeding up content creation and freeing up workers' time, Microsoft said.

The Redmond, Washington-based company, outpacing peers through investments in ChatGPT's creator OpenAI, also showcased a new "business chat" experience that can pull data and perform tasks across applications on a user's written command.

"We believe this next generation of AI will unlock a new wave of productivity growth," Satya Nadella, Microsoft's chief executive, said in a livestreamed presentation.

This week's drumbeat of news including new funding for AI startup Adept reflects how companies large and small are locked in a fierce competition to deploy software that could reshape how people work.

At the center are Microsoft and Google-owner Alphabet Inc, which on Tuesday touted AI features for Gmail and a "magic wand" to draft prose in its own word processor. The capabilities that both Microsoft and Google showcased are similar.

The frenzy to invest in and build new products began with last year's launch of ChatGPT, the chatbot sensation that showed the public the potential of so-called large language models.

Such technology learns from past data how to create content anew, powering Microsoft's new copilot alongside other business and application data. This type of AI is evolving rapidly as well. Just this week, OpenAI began the release of a more powerful version known as GPT-4, which is included in the chatbot in Microsoft's updated Bing search engine.

In one of the company's biggest updates on Thursday, Microsoft said AI can open up the computational wizardry of its Excel spreadsheet software - long the domain of trained analysts - to any person able to describe a calculation they would like in plain text.

Microsoft also said AI can summarize email threads and virtual meetings as they occur in its Teams collaboration software, similar to live notes by AI that Google demonstrated to reporters this week.

Microsoft's new business chat experience also can answer a question like, "tell my team how we updated the product strategy," by taking cues from a morning's worth of emails, meetings and chat threads, the company said.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in Palo Alto, California; Editing by Will Dunham)

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