Artificial intelligence robot plugging a cable into an excel spreadsheet
News Analysis

Setting Expectations on Excel's Addition of AI

6 minute read
Erika Morphy avatar
Microsoft, at their recent Ignite conference in Orlando this week shared how AI will be integrated into Excel

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect Microsoft's recent announcements at Microsoft Ignite 2018.

Microsoft has announced this week, at it's Ignite conference in Orlando, that it is adding four new AI features to its ubiquitous and beloved Excel spreadsheet, continuing a development trend that it first announced at the beginning of the year.

The four features are:

  • Ideas - An AI-powered insights service that taps into Office
  • New data types - specifically stocks and geography
  • Insert Data from Picture -  a feature that allows a user to take a picture of a hand-drawn or printed data table with an Android device and convert that analog information into an Excel spreadsheet
  • Dynamic arrays - a feature that allows any formula that returns an array of values to "spill" into neighboring unoccupied cells

Some of these were announced previously, such as the new data types. Other features are new to users, such as the Insert Data from Picture feature. "Today's announcements not only deliver incremental improvements in data handling and performance, they also push the app into new territory with new data types and AI-powered analysis services," Microsoft wrote in a blog post announcing the new tools.

Not all of the features are available immediately. Ideas will be available "soon," Microsoft said, as will the new data types, which are rolling out to users of Excel in Office 365.

Dynamic arrays is available in preview for users signed up for the Office 365 Insiders Program starting immediately. The Insert Data from Picture feature will be available in preview for users signed up for the Office 365 Insiders Program on the Android Excel app soon.

Granted, this is not the type of AI that will send a human to Mars or beyond, but as far as productivity goes, it is an interesting advance — and one that is part of a larger story for Microsoft. “Microsoft is looking to take productivity to new heights,” says Tim Kulp, director of Emerging Technology at Mind Over Machines. “It has been embedding AI in all of its Office products for the past year — everything from using AI to make presentations look better to using AI to help us spell better. These changes are a great example of how AI can get simple stuff like calculations or image resizing out of the way so Office users can focus on using these tools to enhance productivity.”

Related Article: 12 Productivity Tools Baked Into Office 365

A Big Impact On Keyword Research

Enthusiam is building not only for the tool’s new capabilities but also for the various uses to which they can be applied. As one example, Emma Franks, an account manager with Hanapin Marketing said that the new AI update will have a big impact on keyword research and account expansion. 

To illustrate, she told of a client that it is using PPC (pay-per-click) and website data to help inform the client’s larger business strategies. “Currently, that means we are looking at areas with a lot of digital traffic, but where they don't currently have distributors to service and sell their products,” Franks said. “With the new Excel integration, that data can become even more powerful as we are able to quickly reference populations for each city or zip code within a state, calculate the percentage of the population engaging with our search terms, and identify which regions have the most potential for success."

Learning Opportunities

Franks’ assessment of the AI-powered data types? She expects that it will encourage users to take advantage of data that would have been too unrealistically painstaking to consult manually. Ultimately, she predicted, it will lead to more well-informed strategies without a required increase in the time invested.

Related Article: Easy Solutions to Your Worst Spreadsheet Problems

Community Clamoring for Improvements Pre-release.

That said, some users are already clamoring for improvements to the innovations. Jordi Torras, CEO of Inbenta, for instance, would like to see several changes. “It would be great to have built-in machine learning functionalities as Excel Formulas as MS Excel is able to handle more and more data,” he said. “That would streamline the use of machine learning and AI to many users, and extend the usage of AI for the general public.”

It would also be nice to for Excel to have a natural language match algorithm built in, he continued. Even though Microsoft announced support for NLP several years ago, Torras maintained that it is really limited in scope, and cannot deal with minimum semantics or even synonyms — capabilities that would make Excel a more usable tool. “Support for Excel is still based on the old-style "search and click" paradigm for support,” he said. “Using NLP and conversational platforms, would make Excel a way more usable platform, easier to learn and deploy.”

The Truth About AI And Productivity

Indeed it might be that users will have to wait for the next generation of AI for Excel features — perhaps those outlined by Torras or perhaps other changes suggested in different quarters — to truly realize any productivity gains. Kentaro Toyama, a W. K. Kellogg Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information and author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology threw a bucket of cold water on Microsoft fans eagerly awaiting the first wave, namely the AI-powered data types. It is true that Microsoft adding AI to Excel is arguably the first viable attempt to make the intentional application of AI accessible to average users, Toyama said. “There are, of course, plenty of other uses of AI in mainstream products, from Siri, to grammar check, to Google search — but these are cases where the AI enables something else, whereas in Excel, the user will be self-consciously applying AI.”

This is very exciting, he continued. But in the short-run at least Toyama predicted that few people will see dramatic gains in productivity. “Grammar check didn't make people better writers overnight, and Google didn't make knowledge workers smarter, even as these tools definitely assisted with work.”

The same can be said of AI for Excel, he said — because finding trends in data is just one small part of data analysis, and it's arguably one of the simpler parts. “The challenges of data analysis are defining the right questions, ensuring that the data can answer the questions, checking that the data is what it appears to be, ensuring that what look like trends aren't just statistical anomalies, and so on.” Until AI for Excel can do those tasks, it is unlikely to add much to productivity for most people, he concluded.