We’re now standing on the precipice of a new era of artificial intelligence. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, explains how this major development could be set to alter the world as we know it. Stephen Hall reports
As we awake to a morning greeting from Alexa or log onto powerful, connected mobile devices via facial recognition, it’s easy to forget how far society has come in such a short period.
The wheels were set in motion when Microsoft’s first personal computer, the Altair 8800, was launched in 1975.
At the time, the vast majority of people were oblivious to how this small plastic box would lay the foundations that would profoundly transform the existence of millions worldwide.
From the basic early days of the Altair to the dawn of advanced robotics, it’s now strange to think of a computer-free world.
Technology is changing our lives: socially, it’s reshaping the way we interact; economically, it’s impacting transitions; on the factory floor, it’s altering manufacturing processes; and, in marketing, it’s shifting consumer behaviour.
In 2018, individuals live in an industry 4.0 world where everything is connected, and mixed reality is blurring the lines between the physical and the digital.
Self-driving cars are also set to infiltrate our roads, meaning that, in the foreseeable future, it will be conceivable to read a book while leisurely driving to work.
Satya Nadella’s Microsoft is leading the charge
Travelling along this journey, and coaxing the globe towards a new generation of quantum computing, distributed ledgers and robotics, is the digital giant Microsoft.
Currently overseeing the progression is CEO Satya Nadella, who is only the third chief executive in the company’s extensive history of innovation.
He joined the corporation more than 20 years ago and has had a front-row seat, watching as the world integrates increasingly advanced software into proceedings.
Nadella believes that the tech skills attained by the experts of yesteryear are quickly becoming redundant, thanks to the rapidly changing landscape.
It’s a testimony to his staying power that he’s updated his knowledge of the marketplace, in order to stay aligned with the latest developments.
As the leader of one of the front runners in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), Nadella is in a good position to quantify and predict the oncoming trends set to have a massive impact.
Machines are being built to learn, as well as imitate humans. It’s therefore unsurprising that experts have predicted AI will write a bestseller by 2049. It has even been combined with human genetics.
Consequently, some prominent CEOs, including SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, have recoiled at the potential of intelligent machines gaining anthropomorphic qualities and inflicting damage upon the world.
Nadella, however, is excited about AI’s potential, stating that we are only on the first rung of the ladder on a journey towards empowering possibilities.
“One way to measure breakthroughs is to look at the capabilities of AI compared to human beings when it comes to perception,” he explains, while speaking at the Leading Transformation with AI event in London.
“So, when you think about what we achieved in 2016 with object recognition with ResNet, the same thing with speech recognition in 2017, and very recently – in January 2018 – we’re the core leaders of machine reading and comprehension.
“Then, in March, we achieved machine translation – so these were real milestones of AI breakthroughs that Microsoft research was at the forefront of.”
In a continuous series of futuristic innovations, Microsoft has built AI-powered data centres under water.
Project Brainwave, which is integrated with Azure Machine Learning, enables companies to carry out ultra-intelligent image recognition.
The Skype Translator app also allows users to have foreign language conversations in real time via text interpretation.
In a further statement of AI intent, the company recently acquired Berkley-based start-up Bonsai – a business dedicated to training autonomous systems to accomplish tasks.
“Now, one of the things that I like to say is this is not about us celebrating some AI innovations,” Nadella points out.
“The real question is can we take these and democratise them into a set of tools and a set of APIs [application programming interfaces] so that everybody can create AI successfully, because that’s what this is all about.
“To that end, Microsoft has the most comprehensive APIs today, with over 30 APIs – from language to speech to vision – that we expose in Azure, and you can use to build applications.”
Ethical and secure AI is crucial, says Satya Nadella
Under the umbrella of innovation, Nadella encourages members of Microsoft’s vast partner network to join the organisation on its AI journey.
As well as encouraging collaborators to build app for the corporation’s extensive repertoire of products, the tech giant has created a data lake that houses a huge amount of unstructured data, which enables it to join with companies like Unilever and provide employees virtual assistants.
While the trend for artificial helpers grows, much has been speculated about the potential of AI in easing the working lives of humans, so people can delegate mundane and repetitive tasks, thereby freeing up time to focus on more complex activities.
It’s apt that the etymology of robot stems from the Czech word robota, which translates as “forced labour”.
With such a close relationship being formed between human and machine, there has been much debate over the need for a special focus on AI ethics.
In 1942, the late author Isaac Asimov prophesised a future of advanced technology by formulating three moral laws of robotics.
Panning forward to the 21st century, the Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence – a specialist UK House of Lords group focused on ethics – was set up in anticipation of the impending influx of AI.
This development endorses Nadella’s argument for a new set of advancements to be built with empathy in mind.
“We, as humans, make design choices. Those design choices need to be grounded in principles and ethics, and that’s the best way to ensure a future that we all want,” he asserts.
“At Microsoft, we’ve created a committee which is representative of a very diverse group.
“One of the fundamental challenges of AI, especially around language understanding, [are the] models that pick up language and learn from volumes of human data.
“Unfortunately, the products of human data are full of biases from all of us, and so you need to invest in tooling that enables debias.”
The insidious side of technological progress has been accentuated this year.
Cyber-attacks are being carried out at an alarming rate; meanwhile, data harvesting has seen our private lives become more exposed.
Just as Icarus flew too close to the sun, there’s fear that our technological curiosity is spiralling out of control.
The Cambridge Analytica data scandal, for example, amplified the danger of an interconnected world where no information is sacred.
Yet AI is frequently being employed to harvest and manipulate user information. In an attempt to fend off this threat, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was enforced in May to ensure data privacy, but will this regulation hold back the surge?
“With this opportunity, there comes tremendous responsibility,” Nadella states. “We fundamentally believe that privacy is a human right.
“GDPR is a very robust law and regulation, [but] we also recognise it’s just the starting point.
“We’ve worked on the internal processing delivery- now I’m not just talking about us making sure that all the technology is secured, it’s also the operations security posture that we have, especially in the cloud.”
This is an area of expertise that the CEO has extensive experience in. He transitioned from the role of executive vice-president of the Cloud and Enterprise Group in 2014, and this move has inspired a profitable focus in this sector of the business.
Satya Nadella on the next step for Microsoft
Even though the cloud has been lucrative, finding the right equilibrium between a focus on commercially successful products, while predicting imminent trends, can be a delicate balancing act.
As technological innovation is in a constant state of fluctuation, prophesising the future is a tough task, but Nadella has hedged his bets on some pioneering possibilities.
“We’re very excited about quantum computing and, in fact, quantum computing starts with a compiler for us,” he reveals.
“So we built a compiler for quantum algorithms and a simulation environment to enable users to train.
“In some sense, all of the computer science that we learnt in school is now null and void, and you start all over.”
As well as working to bring this technology into the next era, Microsoft is also ploughing forward with advancements in machine and deep learning language processing and automation.
As these capabilities make inroads into our everyday lives, Nadella is optimistic about the omnipresent nature of an interconnected industry 4.0.
“This notion of ‘the world is the computer’ completely changes how you conduct a meeting [and] how that meeting is represented digitally after the meeting has taken place, in terms of the transcript,” he says.
“So, that’s one example of what we are doing in transforming our own applications.”
Elsewhere, the latest AI vision from Microsoft combines with other technology to give people with visual impairments the ability to see.
AI for Earth employs the technology to tackle climate, water, agriculture and biodiversity issues that the planet is facing.
Furthermore, AI for Accessibility is a new $25m (£18.9m), five-year programme to accelerate the development of intelligent solutions to benefit more than one billion people with disabilities around the world.
In 1995, Bill Gates sent a widely-shared memo to employees, heralding “The Internet Tidal Wave”.
Today, Nadella’s vision for the next flood of AI innovations looks set to be transformative.
“To be involved in this opportunity, as well as having a sense of responsibility, is what grounds us in our ambition to empower every person and every organisation to achieve more.”
Who is Satya Nadella?
In 2014, Satya Nadella succeeded Steve Ballmer as CEO of Microsoft.
He joined the company in 1992 and has held numerous roles, including executive vice-president of Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise Group.
He also holds a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, US.
- This story originally appeared in Chief Executive Officer (CEO) magazine. Read it here.