What is GitHub Copilot?

GitHub Copilot is essentially an AI “pair programmer” that offers autocomplete-style suggestions while you code. If you aren’t familiar with the term “pair programmer”, think of it like flying a plane: the pilot has the controls, the copilot is there to help navigate and check your logic.

Here, the main programmer — you — has control of the keyboard, while the GitHub Copilot is there to make suggestions based upon your work. Suggestions based upon the file you’re editing and other related files you have open.

If this sounds like a glorified autocomplete solution rather than the cutting-edge of artificial intelligence, then fear not. GitHub Copilot has been (almost) uniformly welcomed by programmers, with some saying that it paid for itself within minutes.

Use the links below to jump straight to a section you’re interested in, or watch the video for our 60-second explainer.

How can you access GitHub Copilot?

To use GitHub Copilot, you need to do three things:

  1. Set up a GitHub account
  2. Subscribe to GitHub Copilot
  3. Install the GitHub Copilot extension into your environment of choice

Which environments does GitHub Copilot support? For now, JetBrains IDE, Vim/Neovim, Visual Studio or Visual Studio Code.

Once installed, you will get real-time suggestions from GitHub Copilot directly in your IDE. For anyone unfamiliar with the term IDE, it stands for integrated development environment and is software that helps programmers to code. (You can code in Notepad, but that’s like playing tennis with a wooden racquet.)

Is GitHub Copilot free?

Yes, GitHub Copilot is free… but only to students, teachers and people who maintain “popular” open source projects. If you fall within any of those three categories, you will need to be verified.

There are two commercial packages: Copilot for Individuals and Copilot for Business. Note that GitHub only charges in US dollars.

  • GitHub Copilot for Individuals costs $10 per month (or $100 per year)
  • GitHub Copilot for Business costs $19 per user per month

GitHub Copilot for Individuals versus Copilot for Business

The Business version includes everything found in Copilot for Individuals but with extra management and security features. To use Copilot through an organisation or enterprise account, you will need GitHub Copilot for Business.

In particular, it promises “simple licence management” and organisation-wide policy management. There is also support for VPN Proxy via self-signed certificates.

What is OpenAI Codex?

OpenAI Codex is the AI model on which GitHub Copilot is based. So when you see code being suggested, the engine whirring away is OpenAI Codex. According to OpenAI, Codex is a “descendant” of the GPT-3 large language model, but it has been fed upon much existing code found within GitHub rather than the wider web.

OpenAI formally launched Codex in August 2021 (it had previously been in private beta). At that point, only GitHub Copilot used it, but it has since been put to use in several different projects:

  • Machinet, an “AI assistant for developers” that works as a plugin for JetBrains
  • Replit, a programming platform for any language
  • Warp, a Rust-based terminal

Should you worry about security?

GitHub Copilot collects information about your interactions with the IDE, usage data and any errors. Some of this information may include personal data, but according to GitHub and OpenAI it’s stored in such a way that it doesn’t identify you.

You also have control over the collection, retention and processing of your data. However, for fine control over privacy you will need to sign up to the Business version of Copilot.

What about the other Microsoft Copilots?

Copilot has become Microsoft’s umbrella term for its AI-based technologies, so it’s worth separating them out. (Microsoft owns GitHub, too, thus GitHub Copilot.)

First, you may want to read our guide to Windows Copilot. This is an AI assistant being built into Windows 11 later this year. So rather than going through cumbersome controls to find a setting, you should be able to ask Windows Copilot to do it for you instead.

Then there’s Microsoft 365 Copilot. This will be integrated into the Microsoft 365 family of apps, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and Teams. Again, you will be able to take control of things using natural language commands, but what we’re really looking forward to is how well the apps work together. Much more on that in the future.

It’s also worth mentioning Dynamics 365 Copilot, which brings AI to its customer relationship management (CRM) platform.

Finally, there’s Bing AI. After a ropey start, the GPT-4-based AI assistant has rattled Google due to its effectiveness at answering questions.

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Tim Danton

Tim has worked in IT publishing since the days when all PCs were beige, and is editor-in-chief of the UK's PC Pro magazine. He has been writing about hardware for TechFinitive since 2023.