How Microsoft Could Improve Copilot and Ease the Open Source Controversy

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GitHub Copilot has been the subject of some controversy since Microsoft announced it in the summer of 2021. More recently, Microsoft was sued by programmer and attorney Matthew Butterick, who alleged that GitHub’s Copilot violates the terms open source licenses and violated the rights of programmers. Despite the lawsuit, I feel like Copilot is likely to stick around in some form or another, but it got me thinking: If developers are going to use an AI-assisted code generation tool, it would be more productive to think about how to improve than to fight for its right to exist.

Behind the Copilot controversy

Copilot is a predictive code generator that leverages OpenAI Codex to suggest code – and entire functions – as coders compose their own code. It’s a lot like the predictive text seen in Google Docs or Google search functions. When you start composing an original line of code, Copilot suggests code to complete the line or fragment based on a stored repository of similar code and functions. You can choose to accept the suggestion or replace it with your own, which could save time and effort.

The controversy stems from the fact that Copilot draws its suggestions from a large body of open source code that it has processed. The idea of ​​monetizing the work of open source software contributors without attribution has angered many members of the GitHub community. It even resulted in a call for the open source community to drop GitHub.

There are valid arguments for both sides of this controversy. The developers who freely shared their original ideas probably didn’t intend for them to end up being packaged and monetized. On the other hand, one could argue that what Microsoft has monetized is not the code but the AI ​​technology to apply that code in a proper context. Anyone with a free GitHub account can access the code, copy it, and use it in their own projects — without attribution. In this regard, Microsoft does not use the code any differently than it has been used from the start.

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Taking Copilot to the next level

As someone who has used Copilot and seen how it saves time and increases productivity, I see an opportunity for Microsoft to improve Copilot and address some of the complaints from critics.

What would improve the next generation of Copilot is a better sense of context for its suggestions. To make usable recommendations, Copilot could base them on more than just a GitHub search. Suggestions might work in the specific context of the code being written. There must be some significant AI technology at work behind the suggestions. This is both the unique value of Copilot and the key to improving it.

Software programmers want to know where suggestions come from before they accept them and understand that the code is tailored to their specific needs. The last thing we want is to use suggested code that works well enough to work when compiled, but is inefficient, or worse, prone to failure or security risk.

By providing more context to its Copilot suggestions, Microsoft could give the coder the confidence to accept them. It would be great to see Microsoft offer insight into the origin of the suggested code. A trail back to the original source – including an attribution – would achieve this goal, and would also share some of the credit that is owed. Just knowing that there is a window to the original open source repository could bring some peace to the open source community and also help Copilot users make better coding decisions while they work. I was delighted to see Microsoft reach out to the community recently to figure out how to build trust in AI-assisted tools, and I can’t wait to see the results of that effort.

Like I said, it’s hard to imagine that GitHub Copilot will go away just because some of its community is upset with Microsoft’s repackaging of their work behind a paywall. But Microsoft would have everything to gain from extending a digital olive branch to the open-source community — while improving the efficiency of its product.

Coty Rosenblath is CTO at Katalon.

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