The Microsoft Build conference is a three-day event held in the company’s birth place of Seattle, Washington, that specifically targets those in the tech industry.
At the annual event, Microsoft details its plans for key products like Windows, Cortana and the Hololens, as well discussing where it envisages the future of tech is heading.
In an unexpected move, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella opened day one of Build with a warning for those in charge of creating technology: Don’t go creating a dystopian future, like George Orwell’s 1984.
The announcement by Nadella was significant, considering tech companies love to wax lyrical about the ways they’re helping the world to be a better place, all the while dismissing the potential negative repercussions.
Just consider the 6000-word manifesto released by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in February, where he outlined his plan to make the social network a global community that can contribute to issues like terrorism and climate change.
Despite Zuckerberg’s aspirations, Facebook’s ethics have copped heavy criticism as of recent. Videos of two murders were uploaded to Facebook last month and watched by hundreds of thousands of people, while fake news stories circulated on the site last year are believed to have impacted on the US election.
Taking a similar lofty approach would’ve been easy for Microsoft’s Nadella – after all, there’s a few things to brag about, as far as company values go. They’ve made Ethisphere’s most ethical companies list for seven years in a row now, and it’s also becoming increasingly open sourced and collaborative in the products it offers.
But instead, Microsoft’s CEO outlined the cause for concern of a society where technology is becoming increasingly ingrained in every facet of people’s lives.
“By 2020, it’s estimated that there’s going to be 25 billion intelligent devices. Whether it's precision medicine or precision agriculture, whether it’s digital media or industrial internet, there’s the opportunity for us as developers to have broad and deep impact on all parts of society and all parts of the economy has never been greater,” Nadella said.
“With this enormous opportunity, I believe, comes enormous responsibility.”
He said the choices developers make going forward will have profound implications for the rest of society.
“I’m an unrepentant tech optimist, there’s no question of that, but also I’m grounded. There are unintended consequences of technology,” he said.
“It’s not just that we can use more technology to solve these problems, and definitely technologists themselves cannot solve these. But I do believe that it is up to us to ensure that some of the more dystopian scenarios don’t come true.”
At this point in the opening, George Orwell’s infamous 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World emblazoned the large screens on stage in a rather confronting manner, with the mood in the room turning solemn.
Nadella compared the two book’s main themes – tech being used to control, monitor and dictate the masses, and tech being used to distract people from their lives devoid of meaning and purpose.
“Neither of these futures is something that we want. What are we going to do and what are the practical ways we can make progress?” he asked the audience, which was largely comprised of developers.
He offered forward a solution: Ensuring creators’ design principles are honourable.
“We can make practical design choices that help enshrine our timeless values,” he said.
Nadella said the three values to abide by to stay true to this is are: to empower people with technology and amplify their capabilities, to use technology to bring more empowerment to more people and to built trust in technology.
“I think it starts with us taking accountability. Taking accountability for the algorithms we create, the experiences that we create and ensuring that there is more trust in technology with each day.”
Using tech to improve lives
With the ominous message out of the way, Nadella moved into examples of what Microsoft is doing to combat frightening, dystopian technology-filled futures.
First up was Microsoft’s use of Cortana, an AI, voice-controlled virtual assistant (like Apple’s Siri, but for Windows) in hospitals and construction sites to create a safer working environment.
Nadella said one of the most profound changes that happened with the heralding in of the internet was all the text ever created being available via a search engine.
“Just imagine if we can do that with any physical place,” he said. “Suppose we can create these digital twins of a hospital, of an industrial setting, a factory floor.”
With a digital library of a company’s safety policies, staff profiles and patient information in place, Cortana can use surveillance cameras to search the surroundings the same way an internet search works. By doing this, it can recognise and alert staff to anomalies before they happen.
The result? workplaces can become a much safer, AI-driven place, Nadella says.
Examples given included a jackhammer lying in an unsafe way at a construction site, as well as a heart surgery patient over-exerting themselves walking around a hospital and needing a nurse.
In both cases, Microsoft provided a live demonstration of Cortana recognising the anomaly on screen and sending out a signal.
Nadella says this technology makes workplaces safer, securer and more productive, but one issue he conveniently skirted around was the Orwellian-like surveillance of staff.
Would anomalies Cortana could be programmed to look out for include when an employee looks like they’re slacking off or checking their phone?
The other example of ‘do-good’ technology Microsoft demonstrated came from one of its researcher named Haiyan Zhang.
In a touching case study video that ended to roaring applause, Zhang told the story of how she created a wearable device that can stop Parkinson’s disease tremors and help those diagnosed with the illness write and draw.
In the video, Emma Lawton, a graphic designer who was diagnosed with the disease at age 29, was shown trying out the device named after her for the first time and being moved to tears.
Nadella used this example to conclude his talk with the notion of empathy when designing technology, and how a greater understanding of others can change the world.
We want to think about people,” he said.
“But we also want to think about the institutions people build.
“There’s an opportunity and responsibility we have as developers to build that common ground with our fellow human beings; to have that impact. I hope that this is something that we as developers can take forward with the choices we make.”
Elly Strang travelled to Microsoft Build 2017 in Seattle courtesy of Microsoft.