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Microsoft will fix your sexist PowerPoint presentations with AI

A new AI coach will help you think and speak more inclusively.

Microsoft will fix your sexist PowerPoint presentations with AI
[Image: courtesy Microsoft]

Since 2015, a small AI feature inside PowerPoint has quietly revolutionized the way we work. A tool called PowerPoint Designer analyzes images and words to automatically suggest a handful of visually pleasing layouts–and even turn text into complex timelines–in an attempt to turn everyone into a PowerPoint ace. To date, users have chosen over a billion of these AI-generated slides to be used in presentations. Now, Microsoft is thinking about how AI can continue to make PowerPoint better: to not just make our PowerPoints sleeker, but to make them more inclusive, too.

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A new feature called Presenter Coach allows you to practice your presentation orally at your computer, talking through your slideshow just as you would in front of an audience. An AI listens in, and appears as a tiny black box in the bottom right hand corner of your screen, chiming in with suggestions along the way.

[Image: courtesy Microsoft]
The technology is an evolution of an inclusivity checker that Microsoft announced for Word earlier this year. The checker scans your text for the use of unnecessarily gendered pronouns as part of a general grammar check. The PowerPoint team simply imported this AI logic into PowerPoint–and added voice recognition to the mix.

On a call with the media, Derek Johnson, PowerPoint designer principal program manager, demonstrated the tool. In one instance, he read the text on the slide, and the AI prompted him to “Pay attention to originality. Avoid reading the slides.” In another, he said “basically” before meandering a bit, and the AI told him to watch out for filler words.

The most surprising moment was when Johnson said he was, the “best man for the job.” The black box flagged his words, under the header “sensitive phrases,” and suggested that his language “might be culturally sensitive in some cases.” What does that mean exactly? It’s hard to say. But no doubt, Microsoft is being deliberately vague. If the company wants to nudge the 1.2 billion Office users on the planet to speak more sensitively in an era of unprecedented political divide–an era when, for some reason, being considerate to others is a form of partisan activism–this is exactly the fine line it has to walk.

More than perhaps any other company in tech, Microsoft has made inclusivity a north star for the company’s products, from its Xbox controllers to its productivity software to its research efforts. It’s not necessarily just out of the goodness of their hearts, either; inclusivity has proven to be a powerful differentiator for Microsoft, which has leveraged the cause to reposition itself from sleepy to woke.

What’s particularly intriguing about the coach, however, is that it’s attempting to modify human behavior in a way that is one step removed from Microsoft products themselves. It’s not suggesting different words rendered on a screen; it’s suggesting different words coming out of the user’s mouths. In this sense, it’s trying to change the way people act. “At the end of the day it’s their call if they want to take these suggestions,” says Johnson of how customers use the feature. “We’ll never enforce anything. We just want to make people aware.”

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Some other new updates will be rolling out to PowerPoint Designer’s AI tools today as well. Now, PowerPoint will spot figures in your presentations–like “1,500 miles”–and automatically cross reference Bing for a way to ground them to a more tangible reference (“about half the width of the United States”). PowerPoint Designer will then render a slide with these numbers side-by-side. Bing will even localize the statistics to be relevant to global audiences. So a user in Europe or Asia would not reference the United States for that 1,500-mile figure, but something else.

Additionally, organizations will be able to bake their brand guidelines into the AI itself, so that the slides PowerPoint suggests match the font, colors, and layouts that your organization prefers. What’s most promising about this feature is not just its capability to get countless PowerPoint users inside a Fortune 500 company on the same page; it’s that the process is completely automatic. PowerPoint Designer’s AI can analyze your company’s stock templates and generate new permutations from them, inferring the rules with which internal brand guidelines operate.

“That’s why, frankly, it’s taken us a while [to launch],” says Shawn Villaron, PowerPoint Partner Group Program Manager. “We looked at a number of processes. At one point we were going to send a tool to everybody, ask them to work on our behalf and annotate their templates. We thought that wasn’t in the spirit [of the platform].” To prove that the auto branding function works, Villaron informed us that Microsoft employees had already used the tool to generate slides for its recent Build conference.

Of course, given that PowerPoint is designing more and more of our slides for us–and even shaping our oral presentations–the question become: Will all of our PowerPoints begin to look and sound the same? Will we all tell stories with the same tone and cadence, a la a TED Talk?

The team quickly points out that AI-generated slides are often a starting point that are further customized by the user. “It’s not about doing your job for you, it’s about assisting you, accelerating you on a path toward success,” says Villaron. “I’m not interested in building people’s presentations for them.”

Furthermore, Microsoft can leverage AI to create nearly limitless slide options. Its human team designed 35 base permutations of slides the AI would reference back in 2015, and the company has been adding an unspecified number since. The AI analyzes these slides and suggests millions to billions of iterations from there. Says Villaron: “One of the balances we have to strike is to give people assistance, but not drive everyone to the same structure, visuals, and narrative.”

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The updates are launching today, free to all Office 365 subscribers.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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