Microsoft SA reveals early local adopters of Copilot

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga
Johannesburg, 12 Feb 2024
If used strategically, the Microsoft Copilot AI chatbot can help businesses improve productivity, efficiency and competitiveness, says an analyst.
If used strategically, the Microsoft Copilot AI chatbot can help businesses improve productivity, efficiency and competitiveness, says an analyst.

Microsoft South Africa has seen steady growth of local companies deploying the Microsoft Copilot artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot across their business operations, with some early adopters already improving productivity levels.

This was revealed by Ayanda Ngcebetsha, director of data and AI at Microsoft South Africa, speaking during a webinar held to educate local media on AI and provide an update on the tech giant’s AI strategy.

While Ngcebetsha revealed some blue-chip companies have already taken flight with Copilot, he did not divulge how many have embraced the technology to date.

According to World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck, in terms of Copilot competitors, Google's Gemini Pro is an obvious key competitor locally, while Cisco’s newly-launched Motific generative AI platform is another innovative tool to watch out for.

Globally, experts tout the likes of IBM Watson Studio, AmplifAI and Amazon Web Services’ Lake Formation among other contenders in this space.

This, as tech giants step up efforts to invest in AI.

Copilot promises to transform the way employees conduct their functions, through a combination of advanced computing systems, such as machine learning, neural network, natural language processing, computer vision generative AI and deep learning technologies.

Ayanda Ngcebetsha, director of data and AI at Microsoft South Africa.
Ayanda Ngcebetsha, director of data and AI at Microsoft South Africa.

It started rolling out in September, as part of Microsoft’s free update to Windows 11 across Bing, Edge and Microsoft 365.

In November, it was made generally available for Microsoft 365 enterprise customers, along with Microsoft 365 Chat, as the software giant transforms all its products to include AI tools developed by its AI start-up partner OpenAI.

As part of the new expansion, Microsoft last month introduced a premium consumer subscription for the AI assistant, dubbed Copilot Pro, for a monthly fee of $20 (R375). Copilot for Microsoft 365 was also made available to small and medium businesses, for $30 (R565) per user, per month.

“We’ve only really started with early adoption of late, and we cannot share any numbers,” said Ngcebetsha. “But we have some phenomenal case studies from businesses, such as Spar and Derivco, and banking customers, such as Absa and Nedbank, which have really done some incredible work with it [Copilot] and we are super-excited. We are still in early days, but from the early adopters among the corporates, and others, we are seeing some great impact.”

Also dubbed an “AI assistant at work”, Copilot combines the power of large language models with data in the company’s Microsoft Graph and the Microsoft 365 apps, “to turn content into a powerful productivity tool”, claims Microsoft.

The technology enables capabilities such as analysing documents and offering real-time suggestions to enhance content quality, grammar and readability, and allows users to explore content and data across documents, presentations, spreadsheets, notes, chats, e-mail and meetings.

According to Ngcebetsha, Microsoft SA is currently engaging with tertiary institutions, discussing multiple ways of integrating the technology across their training programmes and internal processes.

Last January, Microsoft announced a “multibillion-dollar” investment in OpenAI, the start-up company that developed viral bot ChatGPT, which made its debut in November 2022.

The emerging technology has sparked global interest due to its ability to create code, audio, images, write essays, digital art and text-based videos.

The OpenAI investment helped Microsoft accelerate its position to the forefront of the global generative AI revolution.

In an e-mail interview with ITWeb, Goldstuck notes there are several factors that distinguish Copilot from the array of AI-based technologies available in the market – which offer companies a host of benefits.

“If used strategically, Copilot can help businesses improve their productivity, efficiency and competitiveness, but it goes beyond that. Because it introduces new capabilities, it also opens up new possibilities. It holds the promise of fostering a culture of learning, collaboration and growth,” he explains.

Noting Copilot’s potential impact in helping local firms increase their revenue streams and gain productivity levels, through AI, Goldstuck points out: “Rather than winning the game, it will be one of the tickets to get into the game. Those using it will still differentiate themselves by their own specific strategies. Not using it will be the differentiator, but as a negative differentiator, it will ensure they fall behind the rest.

“However, it remains to be seen how effectively Google's Gemini Pro is integrated into Google business products and services. At first sight, it still seems to be a solution looking for problems. Make no mistake: it's powerful. But its use cases will define it, rather than its capability. As with ChatGPT's Pro version, it is more about providing a platform for AI initiatives rather than being baked into the business.”