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Satya Nadella: The AI revolution isn’t just around the corner, it’s already here and transforming business

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has been in the UK this week, inspecting the company’s Cambridge-based artificial intelligence research efforts, and meeting with many of the company’s British customers.

In a speech on Tuesday attended by Computing, Nadella was keen to assert the importance of AI to business now – not just in the future – as well as explaining some of the developments in Microsoft’s Azure cloud, particularly in terms of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, data and processing power.

Artificial intelligence, warned Nadella, is already changing industries from “precision agriculture” to engineering, but the transformation that will be wrought by artificial intelligence “comes with great responsibility”, he added.

As such, he supported calls for a so-called ‘digital Geneva Convention’ that would act to restrain nation states from using online as a free-for-all in terms of espionage and sabotage – although he did not call out any state by name.

He also brought up the recent House of Lords report into artificial intelligence and, in particular, its assertion that the UK could lead the way in terms of ‘ethical AI’.

“Technology developments just don’t happen; they happen because of us as humans making design choices — and those design choices need to be grounded in principles and ethics, and that’s the best way to ensure a future we all want,” said Nadella.

Microsoft had set up a committee to consider those ethical choices, he said, adding that AI itself – often trained on human interpretations – needed to be de-biased. “Microsoft’s mission is not a string of words, as the creator of technology platforms it’s about who we are as a company,” he said.

With artificial intelligence, IoT devices and sensors embedded pretty much everywhere, and cloud computing doing the heavy work of data storage and processing a long-term regime of trust and consistency was required, he added.

While AI is at the core of the revolution, the experience layer for most people will come from Windows and Office 365, with the ERP suite Dynamics 365 and Xbox gaming soon to join what Nadella described as the “intelligent cloud” of Azure, Nadella said.

The Azure cloud, he continued, would be “multi-sense and multi-device, enhancing input and output with speech, vision and AI [providing] people centred, multi-device, multi-sensory experiences”.

One of the keys to that, said Nadella, would be Microsoft’s initiative to standardise the “IoT fabric” while building out Azure features and functions to support this network.

On top of that, Microsoft has also built out its toolsets to support not just the trio of technologies that Nadella claims is already leading the revolution, but also quantum computing, as and when it emerges from the labs. When it does, Nadella claimed, “all of the computer science we learnt at school will become obsolete”.

A number of the developments touted by Nadella included speech recognition and machine translation tools for businesses, enabling automatic transcription of meetings with a speech recognition tool capable of comprehending different accents and context when people talk over each other, as well as a transcription tool for doctors that can highlight important information conveyed by patients.

Nadella also used these video interludes as another opportunity to push the virtues of the company’s under-adopted HoloLens virtual reality tool, suggesting that it could be used as a form of video conferencing to help dispersed groups solve problems better understood visually.

It wasn’t clear, though, whether the technology was running locally or in the cloud, how the data might be processed and stored, and who might have access to it later.

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