Australian public servants will be among the first in the world to start using Generative AI (GenAI) tools embedded in Microsoft’s Office productivity suite as it starts a six-month trial of 365 Copilot next year.

The Australian Public Service (APS) Copilot trial will begin in January and is to be rolled out through the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) with training help from Microsoft.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made the announcement on Thursday as he met with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella while attending the APEC summit in San Francisco.

“By strengthening our partnership with Microsoft, we are charting a course for the future of public service – one where Generative AI is used responsibly to enhance the work of the APS in delivering for Australians without compromising on safety,” Albanese said in a statement. 

This is the second time in less than a month that the Prime Minister has actively promoted Microsoft’s products.

In late October, the US tech giant said it was planning to spend $5 billion on Australian data centres and training programs – an announcement Albanese talked up as a vote of confidence in Australian technology, rather than as a means to get a foothold in Asia-Pacific cloud and AI markets over its rival Amazon.

Albanese’s government is facing criticism for the secret procurement process behind its quantum computing ambitions which are rumoured to favour a US-based company over a local business.

Microsoft’s GenAI tools – announced in March as it raced to get them to market in the wake of ChatGPT’s success – bring 2023's breakout technology to the likes of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Outlook.

Microsoft chose the name Copilot to synchronise the branding of its GenAI tools following the release of GitHub Copilot in mid-2022.

The company this week announced it would re-name Bing Chat to Copilot for consistency. 

Copilot is already being trialed by a handful of Australian firms like AGL, Bupa and NAB as part of its early access program.

Microsoft has said it will price the extra GenAI tools at US$30 per user per month for enterprise customers.  

The government has not detailed the taxpayer cost, if any, of its public service Microsoft Copilot trial.

It did, however, claim that the Copilot rollout will be consistent with guidelines from the DTA’s AI in Government Taskforce.

Even in the hands of professionals, GenAI tools are notoriously flawed as was illustrated by the recent incident when an Australian academic mistakenly included made-up information in a submission to the government.

The announcement to partner with Microsoft to start using its GenAI tools comes in the same week as the government committed to “ensure there is appropriate oversight of the use of automation in service delivery” as part of its response to the Robodebt Royal Commission.