What Is Copilot? Microsoft’s AI Assistant Explained

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Microsoft bills its Copilot generative AI service as “your everyday AI companion.” That sounds nice, but what the heck does it mean?

Copilot is a conversational chat interface that lets you search for specific information, generate text such as emails and summaries, and create images based on text prompts you write. For example, if you type in, “Summarize this memo in two sentences,” Copilot will do just that by giving you a concise written summary in the chat interface below your request. Ditto for images when you describe what you want it to draw. You can even ask Copilot to write code in many widely used computer languages, including JavaScript, C, and Python.

It’s important to understand that Copilot is still changing and developing fast—in how it works, what it can do, and what it is. Until late 2023, for example, Microsoft had something called Bing Chat, which overlapped with Copilot, but now it’s all just called Copilot. Even the components and design of Copilot keep changing. While writing this article, a Notepad feature in the web interface disappeared, and the design of the Copilot webpage changed. The back-end technology and interfaces continuously evolve, too, although the basics are in place.


How Do You Get Copilot and What Can It Do?

You can use Microsoft Copilot in several places listed below. In all of these, Copilot can answer questions and generate text and images, but it has unique options in some of its forms.

Copilot Website

Microsoft Copilot Website

(Credit: Microsoft/PCMag)

Using the Copilot website, copilot.microsoft.com, along with Copilot in Bing, is the only place where you can use plug-ins, like those for OpenTable to book restaurant reservations and Kayak for searching and booking travel. (Support for plug-ins is slated to come to the Windows 11 sidebar later.) You can choose up to three plug-ins to be active for your Copilot session.

Copilot Sidebar in Windows

Microsoft Copilot sidebar in Windows 11

(Credit: Microsoft/PCMag)

The special power of using Copilot in Windows is that it lets you change Windows settings, such as switching to dark mode, setting the volume level, or turning on Do Not Disturb. You can also ask it to summarize text you select on your Windows desktop. The ability to open some apps was in an earlier version of the Copilot sidebar and is expected to return, but currently, that’s not an option. New PCs will even come with a Copilot key on their keyboards to summon the AI.

Copilot in Bing Search and the Bing Mobile App

Microsoft Copilot in Bing Search

(Credit: Microsoft/PCMag)

With Copilot in Bing, you can switch back and forth between AI and regular search. Just scroll the mouse wheel up and down to move between the two.

Copilot Sidebar in the Edge Web Browser

Microsoft Copilot Sidebar in the Edge Web Browser

(Credit: Microsoft/PCMag)

Edge’s sidebar includes separate buttons for regular Copilot text interactions and image creation with Microsoft Designer.

Copilot Mobile Apps for Android and iOS

Copilot Mobile Apps for Android and iOS

(Credit: Microsoft/PCMag)

These identical apps let you choose between GPT-3.5 and GPT-4 AI models with a toggle button.

Microsoft 365 Apps

With a paid subscription, you can use Copilot directly in Microsoft 365 apps, like Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Teams (Copilot for Teams requires a business subscription). Businesses that install Microsoft 365 can ground Copilot’s responses with their own data. In other words, you can ask Copilot about specific information that might be found in your Word documents, Outlook emails, or Microsoft Team chats.


Is Copilot Free?

Copilot is free to use on the web, in Windows, in the Edge browser, and in the mobile Copilot apps. The only times you need to pay for Copilot are when you want to use it inside Microsoft 365 apps, when you need to base your results on your own data, and when you want to use a faster model or get faster image generation. For those cases, you need a Copilot Pro subscription.

Though it’s free, Copilot is only available in select regions and works (for now) only in Chinese (Simplified), English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese (Brazil), and Spanish.


How Much Does Copilot Pro Cost?

In addition to the free version of Copilot, there are at least five paid tiers of service.

For individuals and small businesses, Copilot Pro costs $20 per month. Pro gives you faster results and lets Copilot become integrated with Office apps like Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint.

Business and Enterprise Microsoft 365 customers can get Copilot for Microsoft 365 ($30 per person per month), which lets them use Copilot to get answers and suggestions based on company data. On top of writing and summarizing text based on your team’s information, Copilot can generate visual branding for your organization. This more expensive version of Copilot keeps interactions private to the organization and doesn’t use your input to train the versions of Copilot that other people use.

Two more paid versions of Copilot are Microsoft Copilot for Sales and Copilot for Service. The former lets you generate sales meeting briefs and emails and also tie in CRM data. The latter is designed for contact centers for more efficient customer engagements, tapping company and customer data.

Last is Copilot Studio, which lets you program custom versions of Copilot that incorporate custom data to deliver predictable responses within conversations. It starts at $200 per month.


What Technology Is Behind Copilot?

Copilot relies on leading generative AI tools from OpenAI, namely ChatGPT-4 and DALL-E 3. If you were to use either of those tools in ChatGPT itself, you’d have to pay for a ChatGPT Plus subscription. With Copilot, you get them for free. In addition to using these two OpenAI models, Copilot also relies on the large web-scraping database from the Bing search engine, Microsoft Natural Language Processing, Text to Speech (TTS) for generating lifelike speech responses, Retrieval Augmentation Generation (RAG) to ground and add context, and Azure cloud services.

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Just like ChatGPT and Google Gemini, Copilot uses anonymized conversations to train its AI model. That means whatever you type into it gets used to train it—unless you have an organizational account, so it’s a good idea not to enter private info in your interactions. 


What Makes Copilot Different From Other Generative AI Chatbots?

Copilot does have some unique differences from other generative AI chatbots, such as Google Gemini and ChatGPT.

Copilot has some features that distinguish it from other AI services:

  • Voice input and spoken responses. You can interact with Copilot using your voice (unlike with ChatGPT and Google Gemini) in addition to typing text.

  • Image upload. In some cases, you can upload images to Copilot.

  • Choice of style. When you ask Copilot to write text for you, you get to choose the style of the response, with the options being More Creative, More Balance, or More Precise.

  • Links to sources. Though you usually get your full answer in the chat, Copilot includes more and more prominent links to its sources of information than other AI chatbots do.

  • Choice of AI models. In the Copilot mobile app, you can select GPT-3.5 (faster) or GPT-4 (more accurate) to power your chats. Copilot Pro subscribers can choose GPT-4 Turbo for even faster, more accurate responses.

  • Image generation for free. With ChatGPT, you need a paid Plus account to use DALL-E image generation.


Microsoft has documented its approach to responsible AI in Copilot, as well as a Responsible AI Standard and AI Principles for all its services. According to Microsoft, these policies are intended to promote accountability, transparency, fairness, reliability, safety, privacy, security, and inclusiveness. A response form lets anyone give feedback about issues with responsible AI. The policy requires Microsoft to “conduct impact assessments, evaluations, and ongoing monitoring for AI systems to identify and mitigate potential risks and harms to people, organizations, and society.”

Microsoft has a Copilot Copyright Commitment policy that covers paying customers, representing them in copyright infringement cases, and paying resulting fines. Free users of Copilot aren’t as protected and must review, adapt, and attribute generated content they use publicly. Work and school accounts are also protected by Commercial Data Protection, which states that Microsoft won’t use customer data to train the AI and doesn’t have access to their Copilot interactions.


Copilot Is a Moving Target, and It’s Not Perfect

The generative AI technology behind Copilot is based on machine learning, recursive neural networks, large language models, and large image data sets. The latest version of ChatGPT on which Copilot is based (GPT-4) uses a trillion parameters when formulating answers. It’s a quickly evolving field. The AI models behind Copilot continue to improve how they understand and parse what you’re asking and sift through data to generate relevant results.

Copilot represents remarkable advances in artificial intelligence. Being able to generate prose, poetry, images, lists, charts, itineraries, recipes, and answers to obscure questions without requiring lots of search term tweaking is a boon. But Copilot takes longer to produce results than a good old web search, and its facts aren’t always correct (though it provides links to sources and corrects itself in response to your feedback). Copilot itself comes with a warning: “Microsoft Copilot uses AI to respond, so mistakes are possible.”

That’s par for the course in the rapidly developing field of generative AI, and it’s quite possible that Copilot has already changed significantly since we published this story. We’ll be tracking its progress and updating this article accordingly, so be sure to check back for our latest findings.

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