Microsoft Uses AI to Expose Insights Buried in Excel Spreadsheets

Microsoft's new Insights in Excel feature uses artificial intelligence to help users find data trends that are tucked deep in their spreadsheets.

Microsoft Excel

Microsoft has found another use for artificial intelligence. This time, the Redmond, Wash. software giant wants to help Excel users find data and business insights that aren't readily apparent when they are working on their spreadsheets.

Among the latest updates to Office 365, Microsoft is including an AI tool that scours Excel spreadsheets and unearths information that users may have missed. The tool, called Insights in Excel, is "a new service that automatically highlights patterns it detects, which makes it easier for everyone to explore and analyze their data," blogged Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate vice president for the Office division at Microsoft.

"Powered by machine learning, Insights helps identify trends, outliers, and other useful visualizations, providing new and useful perspectives on data," the Microsoft executive wrote in the blog.

Microsoft will begin rolling out an Insights in Excel preview to Office insiders this month. The Office Insider program, like its Windows counterpart, grants participants early access to upcoming versions of Office application and services.

The Insights in Excel pane appears alongside the main interface and generates a scrollable assortment of charts that are reminiscent of the visualizations produced by Power BI, Microsoft's cloud-based business intelligence and analytics offering. Users can click on any chart and easily append it to their Excel files.

Not everyone uses Excel, but practically all workers encounter some jargon or corporate terminology during the course of the workday. To help newcomers and even longtime workers come to grips unfamiliar terms and other business shorthand, Microsoft announced the new Acronyms feature in Word.

Using machine learning, Acronyms trawls Microsoft Graph to clarify unfamiliar terms. Microsoft is a collection of APIs that uses employee and business data to provide contextual information when users interact with Office 365 applications.

If users encounter some unfamiliar jargon, they can use the Review menu item to decipher what the author meant based on emails and documents where it had already been defined. However, Office users will have a bit of a wait before the Acronyms feature materializes. Acronyms will be distributed to commercial Office 365 customers sometime in 2018, the company said.

Mobile Outlook users who keep tabs on their email inboxes will also have to wait for another AI-enabled feature, one that will help them avoid being late to meetings and social engagements.

In December, Microsoft is incorporating Cortana, the virtual assistant technology in the Windows 10 operating system and the Harman Kardon Invoke smart speaker, into Outlook for iOS.

With Cortana onboard, Outlook will be able to alert users to upcoming appointments, along with driving or mass transit directions that will get them there on time. Called Time to Leave, this feature will also be added to the Android version of the Outlook app in 2018.

Lastly, users who upload their receipts, whiteboard pictures, screenshots and other visual content containing text to OneDrive and SharePoint will soon be able to quickly find information stored in those image files. A new intelligent search capability will allow Office 365 commercial users to retrieve files with a simple, text-based search by the end of 2017, Microsoft promised.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...