It’s In the Details: New Excel and PowerPoint Features Focus on AI

New, Intelligent Office 365 Features Promise More Productivity with Less Effort

With regard to artificial intelligence (AI), Americans have mixed opinions. According to a recent Pew Research Center report about automation in everyday life, some people see AI as a force for good, spurring boundless innovation, eliminating the need for humans to perform dangerous jobs, and more. Others have a pessimistic, Orwellian view—they believe AI will make work uninteresting and monotonous, displace human workers outright, and create an even greater gap between rich and poor.

While the above-mentioned scenarios are real possibilities, they don’t represent the AI of the present—the intelligence that powers an increasing number of Office features, plus the systems that enable spam detection, virtual assistants (Cortana, Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant), computer vision in self-driving cars, and more.

Microsoft recently announced the addition of more AI-powered features and functionality to Office 365, and it promises more to come. Here’s a look at the standouts that are already available or coming soon to Excel and PowerPoint.


  • Ideas: If you aren’t sure how to present your data, you can use the Ideas feature, which automatically detects and highlights patterns, and identifies trends, outliers, and other useful visualizations. It’s as simple as clicking a cell in a data range, and then clicking the Ideas button on the Home tab. The feature will analyze your data and present a range of visuals to choose from in the task pane. (Note that the feature works best when data is set up in table format.)
  • New data types: Microsoft has added two new linked data types, Stocks and Geography, which have AI capabilities. Excel can now recognize “rich” data types beyond numbers and text—for example, Excel can detect that “Luxembourg” is a country and automatically associates it with additional information such as population and gross domestic product. This data can then be populated into different cells or used directly in formulas and stay updated with the latest figures.
  • Insert data from picture: Say goodbye to manual data input. With this feature, you can take a picture of a printed data table with an Android device and convert the information into an Excel spreadsheet with one click. Excel’s new image recognition capability automatically converts a picture to a fully editable Excel table. (Note: Insert Data from Picture is available to Office for Android Insiders, and will roll out to the public sometime soon, according to Microsoft.)
  • Dynamic arrays: Not so long ago, advanced Excel formulas were the domain of spreadsheet experts. But with each new update, Microsoft makes calculating with Excel easier and more accessible to people with intermediate skills. With dynamic arrays, any formula that returns an array of values will populate adjacent empty cells—less effort, more productivity. You can get started by using one of Excel’s new functions—FILTER, UNIQUE, SORT, SORTBY, SEQUENCE, SINGLE, and RANDARRAY.



  • Design ideas: This feature enables you to create presentations with nearly all the polish of Sway, but without the learning curve. (Note: The first time you click to use the feature, it will ask for permission to get design ideas for you. After you’ve enabled the feature, PowerPoint will automatically show you presentation design ideas when you add photos or text to your slides.)

In its report, Pew Research Center notes that, overall, Americans express more worry than enthusiasm about coming developments in automation and AI. However, the report states, when people increase their understanding of the technology—how it works, what its uses are, and how it can potentially improve their professional lives and productivity—their enthusiasm about it also increases.

That’s reason enough to dive into Office’s new (and existing) AI-powered features as soon as they’re available to you—and don’t be afraid to ask for guidance and help from your organization. With practice, plus support and training, you’ll be embracing AI in no time.

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