Any sci-fi fan knows that when artificial intelligence (AI) and robots are introduced in a story, it is only a matter of time before they rise up against their human masters.
As AI is still in its embryonic stage, we are thankfully a long way from such a scenario unfolding. However, Microsoft went to great lengths at its Future Decoded event this week to assure the assembled masses that AI can be only of benefit to humankind - so long as we take care to use it for the purpose for which it has been trained.
In his keynote speech on the second day of the London event, CEO Satya Nadella implored the tech industry to take collective responsibility for the "unintended consequences" of the rapid rate at which technology is developing.
"I'm inspired by how quickly technology is being diffused, demystified and democratised," Nadella said.
"But we, as an industry, have to mature to confront some of the unintended consequences of all these developments."
As Nadella lectured on 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 how innovative design can affect differently abled employees and end users, leaving the audience with thoughts of how to incorporate it into their solutions.
And the vendor put its money where its mouth is. Numerous NHS trusts and healthcare bodies took up an entire corner of the exhibition floor, displaying their uses of AI and Azure.
One company demonstrated how it uses HoloLens to prep 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. One partner remarked that they had never seen so many healthcare stands at the event before.
Nadella spoke of the ethical issues that may arise from AI, one being that human bias may play into the algorithms, and warned that the industry needs to bear a "collective responsibility" for setting the standards around the model.
"The challenge of that is the biases that are there in our language will be picked up by the AI model," he told the packed auditorium.
"How do we de-bias the word embedding that gets built into a backops model?
"This is one of the things that we have to do as we are democratising AI creation; we are also lifting the practice around AI creation so that we can deploy models that are ethical and transparent.
"AI is only as good as the data on which it trains. If it's being trained for one purpose but being used for another, that is unethical."
One partner at the event agreed with Nadella's assertion around the issues and ethics of AI.
Dan Scarfe, founder of Microsoft Azure partner New Signature UK, said that the industry is entering uncharted territory with AI and all care must be taken to ensure it doesn't get out of hand.
He was also surprised at the emphasis being placed on the societal impact of such technology at the event.
"As a tech company, you would be expecting them to speak on their technological offerings, but it's been more about the impact on society and making it a positive force rather than a negative force," said Scarfe.
"At the moment, Microsoft are uniquely placed in the market because they can talk about that kind of stuff - they are putting themselves up on this moral high ground, which is interesting because you're not hearing about that from the other vendors."
Although, a walk around the expo floor showed that the technology may still be far from requiring a charter of ethics, one company showed how it uses machine learning to take suit orders online and craft the perfectly fitted suit, while another showed how it could be used to make the perfect smoothie.
Accessing the workforce
The other key focus of the event was the topic of accessibility, as Nadella also emphasised the point that technology is no good unless it affects society on a broader basis, particularly in the charity sector.
Lay-Flurrie added to this humanitarian touch by giving an impassioned speech on the topic of inclusive innovative design. 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.
"If we design through the lens of accessibility, we will create better products," she said.
"If you have talent with disability in the fabric of your environment, you will produce better products.
"If you try to make your stuff accessible at the end of the process, it will be expensive. If you add it from the beginning, it will be easier and you will create better things."
Robert Stanley, director of end-user services at Computacenter, said that this was the first time he has seen accessibility be "overt" during a Future Decoded event and welcomed the approach taken by Microsoft.
He explained that Computacenter undertakes workstyle analysis with its customers and recently has started including the topic of accessibility into its questioning.
"We've already had a conversation about adding a module on workstyle analysis to say ‘Do you know what your accessibility needs are for your workflow and are you delivering it to the proportion of the workforce that you need to?'" he said.
"It's not something that we explicitly considered before; we might have put in accessibility solutions because we'd find a need for one, but we haven't proactively asked the question.
"It has highlighted the need to think about it when enabling users and if there are people who need to be catered for differently, that should be built into your solutions."
Scarfe agreed with this point, saying that accessibility was not a topic he would have thought about before, but that having a more diverse workforce makes sense, especially in light of the skills gap.
"We are desperate to find people with skills in this market and meanwhile there is a class of the population who don't get a look in," he said.
"How can we empower them and increase our addressable market for people who might want to come and work for us, in exchange for some changes to how we operate in order for them to participate?"
Mike Ayers, COO at GCi, said he is experiencing an increasing number of customers who know exactly what they want when they approach the company.
"Customers seem to be more specific and getting more advanced in what they're looking at doing," he explained.
"In previous years they've not been quite sure how to bring some of the technologies into their business. Now they seem to be further on that journey, and having more developed conversations around Teams and Azure."
Computacenter's Stanley believes this is down to customers becoming more comfortable around the as-a-service model, and also because of increased education by Microsoft about its products.
"I think for the last two years people have been understanding it more and now it is going to accelerate because they now understand it better and are ready to do something with it," he said.
"These cloud technologies have matured to the point where they will now go on an accelerated adoption curve to become mainstream solutions."
By continuously emphasising to attendees how AI can help both individuals and companies, Microsoft seemed hellbent on humanising the technology that so many fear.
Possibly worrying that his on-the-nose keynote might have gone over the heads of some attendees, Nadella spelled out the message of this year's event to his rapt audience in his closing remarks.
"Ultimately, technology for technology's sake is not going to do anything," he said.
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