At a time when vendors are swooning over the likes of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and the Internet of Things, Microsoft took time to pause at its Future Decoded event in London, warning the tech industry that it cannot afford to run off into the sunset leaving Joe Bloggs high and dry.
The excitement of self-driving cars and self-boiling kettles tends to dominate the headlines, but the idea of machines replacing the average person in the working world is often the elephant in the room.
At Future Decoded Microsoft tried to quantify these fears, claiming its research found that by 2020, five million jobs globally will have disappeared as a result of digital transformation, with one digital job replacing the job of four people in industries where men are predominant. It predicts that women will be affected even more because of the industries they disproportionately work in, increasing its estimation to one in 20 for them.
With the working person in mind, AI and machine learning complementing humans, not replacing them, was an underlying theme running through the Microsoft keynotes at the ExCeL centre in east London.
Microsoft UK CEO Cindy Rose, who officially started the role on the day of the event (2 November), set the scene.
"We truly believe that we are on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution and while that's a cause for optimism and hope, we know that all revolutions pose difficult questions as well - for instance, what will bots and automation mean for jobs, equality, privacy and public safety?" she said.
Microsoft claims to be conscious that its innovations should improve not only technology, but society as a whole. In a buoyant speech Toni Townes-Whiteley, Microsoft's worldwide public sector lead, declared that Microsoft is being driven more by ethical goals than technological goals, claiming that the digital transformation risks further marginalising poorer and less privileged societies.
"Microsoft has a new narrative - cloud is the engine, data is the fuel, and we're striving to go more towards social impact," she said. "It's not just about value-added technology, but values.
"That technology is a means to an end and the end is preserving a society of values. That's fundamentally what's driving the new Microsoft and that's the conversation we want to continue to have."
The audience was given a whirlwind tour of how Microsoft is experimenting with AI and machine learning. Most noteworthy was a demonstration showing how a radiologist could use its technology to build up a three-dimensional image of a patient's brain tumour in a matter of seconds - a process that would normally take hours. Chris Bishop, lab director at Microsoft's research centre in Cambridge, in line with the event's theme, was quick to stress that this technology will not replace a doctor.
"The capabilities of machines are complementary to the capabilities of people," he said. "We still leave the human expert to diagnose the tumour and to plan the treatment."
News that chancellor Philip Hammond was planning a cybersecurity announcement had filtered into the public domain a few hours earlier, but he made a surprise appearance at Future Decoded, dampening the mood by reminding the 5,000-strong audience that along with IoT comes an increasing cybersecurity threat.
Talk of curing cancer quickly shifted to global warfare, as the chancellor outlined in more detail the government's plans to spend £1.9bn on cybersecurity over the next five years as it readies itself for retaliation against what he called hostile "foreign actors" - a thinly veiled threat to Russia and China.
Hammond highlighted high-profile cyber attacks from the past few years, including a "colossal attack" on a US server company last month which affected some UK government services, while also emphasising the hard-line approach the UK would take against such an attack.
"The ability to detect, trace and retaliate in kind is likely to be the best deterrent," he added. "If we do not have the ability to respond in cyber space to an attack that takes down our power network, leaving us in darkness; or hits our air traffic control system, grounding our planes; we would be left with the impossible choice of turning the other cheek and ignoring the devastating consequences or resorting to a military response. That is a choice we do not want to make."
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