Microsoft Sees a Future in AI

In the Mastermind Keynote at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2016, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella discusses artificial intelligence, privacy and principled design.

Does it seem like your virtual personal assistant (VPA) knows everything about your life? Microsoft’s Cortana can give you reminders, track packages, send emails or texts, keep track of your flights and even remind you to say happy birthday to your cousin next time she calls. According to Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, developers made deliberate design decisions with customers in mind as the company moves into the world of artificial intelligence (AI).

“When it comes to AI, the fundamental vision I have is that AI will be infused into everything,” Mr. Nadella said in the Mastermind Interview at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2016 in Orlando.

AI will be infused into everything.

“The currency going forward is going to be how to build trust in technology so that people and organizations are comfortable using more technology, and I think that’s one of the pressing issues of our time,” he said.

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Mr. Nadella believes that it is important to take a “very principled approach” when it comes to privacy and technology in systems such as Cortana. He listed his four pillars of privacy as:

  1. Keep data secure: Whatever data Microsoft has about people or companies must be kept secure because that is one of the fundamental ways to earn consumer trust.
  2. Be transparent: The company is very open about what Cortana knows, what it doesn’t and what information is available.
  3. Offer control: Consumers have the ability to turn off or limit the data access Cortana has or add to it.
  4. Be compliant: Microsoft is careful to remain compliant with all regulations, especially the EU and other regulations of the future as a way to gain trust from consumers.

“Across the board being principled in our approach…is the only way to engender trust,” said Mr. Nadella, who was interviewed by Chris Howard, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, and Helen Huntley, research vice president at Gartner.

Gartner analysts Chris Howard and Helen Huntley interview Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella via live stream.
Gartner analysts Chris Howard and Helen Huntley interview Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella via live stream.

Mr. Nadella also announced that SAP would make its employee-management service, SuccessFactors, available on Microsoft Azure and that a government version for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) would release soon.

An AI future

The company is also making decisions about how AI will look in future products. For example, the notion that AI could allow technology to augment reality so that a doctor will be able to identify a tumor that can’t be seen with the naked eye.

“How can we create more leverage, more insight, and more productivity?” said Mr. Nadella. “We will use AI to augment human capabilities. To get more out of our lives. It’s a design decision.”

However, he also recognized the importance of creating accountability in designers, despite the fact that the technology being created will be self-learning. Even though the algorithms are learning from themselves, the developers responsible for data the systems are training on.

Bet on future technology

Microsoft is looking farther into the future. Mr. Nadella said they are working with the Broad Institute to accelerate by 7x genome sequencing tools.

However finding success often takes time. “One of the hardest challenges of this digital transformation is that there are a lot of technologies that just feel like a dud until they’re not,” said Mr. Nadella. “A lot of what you have to do is invest quite a bit and get it to escape velocity and only then do you accrue any value.”

Companies need to begin building in-house digital capability and that’s where CIOs have a huge role to play to be able to build that out, he said.

And his advice for CIOs? It actually comes from his predecessor, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

“Be bold and be right,” Nadella said. “If you’re not bold you’re not going to have a future, and if you’re not right you’re going to be dead.”

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