Microsoft Future Decoded: Driving the AI revolution with a human touch

Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Author: Robert Ward

The theme for this year’s Microsoft Future Decoded was AI and, more specifically, how it can transform your business faster than any technology before – that’s if we take care to use it for purposes for which it has been trained.

But artificial intelligence is not a new phenomenon. It’s been around since Alan Turing was cracking codes in World War II. So, what’s accelerating this revolution?

According to Cindy Rose, Microsoft’s UK CEO, there are three factors driving its popularity and she outlined these on stage during her keynote speech to open this year’s event.

“Firstly, it’s the explosive growth of data,” she said. “These connected consumer devices and IoT [internet of things] sensors are producing more data today then humans can possibly make sense out of.”

“It is also the power and pervasiveness of cloud,” she added. “Cloud is what enables the efficient and rapid analysis of all this data. Microsoft is investing billions of dollars in a global cloud infrastructure to make sure we can deploy AI, quickly and at scale.”

Indeed, this speed of processing was Rose’s third explanation for the sharp rise in AI usage. This is what makes it a far more game-changing technology than anything that has gone before.

A walk out onto the expo floor revealed a large section dedicated to NHS and healthcare companies who were demonstrating their use of AI and Azure. One showed how it uses HoloLens to prepare doctors before they embark on surgery, while the British Heart Foundation explained how it uses Azure to keep track of all the defibrillators in the country. The overall impression was that this sector is already gaining significant rewards from its early adoption of AI. Meanwhile, other stands showcased a wide variety of applications, including a company using AI to prepare a fitted suit online and another using this technology to blend the perfect smoothie.

Day two saw Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella take to the floor. Observing Nadella’s speeches in recent years, I see the audience’s perception of this man changing gradually from ‘business leader’ to ‘global technology evangelist’ in a similar mould to Steve Jobs. Nadella’s keynote reiterated many of the topics he spoke about at Microsoft’s Ignite conference in Orlando back in September – namely, that Azure empowers every organisation to be a technology company and that it should be considered as “the world’s computer”. He touched on the agile concept of ‘Tech Intensity’ being introduced to fast track adoption and keep pace with the rate of technological change.

Nadella spoke of the ethical issues that may arise from AI, one being that human bias may play into the algorithms, and he warned that the industry needs to bear a “collective responsibility” for setting the standards around the model.

As Nadella spoke about the importance of keeping humanity at the centre of all technological developments, his fellow keynote speaker Jennie Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft, spoke of the importance of innovative design for disabled employees and end users. Lay-Flurrie, who is profoundly deaf, encouraged attendees to start thinking about how they could integrate accessibility into their own workplaces, along with adopting it into their offerings to customers.

In an open and often quite moving speech, she highlighted the difficulties that disabled people have had in the past even getting an interview at Microsoft and how steps are now taken to ensure a fully inclusive recruitment culture, something that we can all aspire to.

The wisdom of following this impassioned speech by Lay-Flurrie with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Esther McVey, must be questioned. Regardless of your political persuasion, McVey’s department has caused undeniable misery for many disabled people who have had their benefits cut since the move to Universal Credit. Reading from printed A4 sheets, she thanked the IT industry for helping disabled people, but her rather cold delivery created a palpable air of hypocrisy, which led to a stream of delegates walking out.

It is testament to Microsoft’s position as a global technology leader that they can devote so much time out of a two-day conference to a moral message about making the world a better place rather than simply focusing on their technology. I doubt many other technology companies would have the confidence to pursue this line with quite the same vigour.

Attending as a technologist, I’m happy to learn the words and sing the song but with this conference being open to all, one concern is whether the technical nature of the keynotes and break out sessions may have been pitched at a level beyond the comprehension of many attendees.

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