Microsoft Builds on Existing Tech, Voices Moral Conscience

At its Build developer conference this week, Microsoft is showing products that highlight its changed direction under the aegis of chief executive Satya Nadella. Among them is a DJI drone loaded with Microsoft software to identify oil pipeline faults without an Internet connection. Although Microsoft is helping customers enhance their existing gear, the company promised “big things ahead” to those entirely in the Microsoft ecosystem. Uninvolved in recent data scandals, some deem Microsoft to be the tech industry’s moral conscience.

The Verge reports that Cortana is integrated into its Slack competitor Teams and can be invited into chats as well as automatically suggest, for example, a document based on the user’s conversation. When paired with a 360-degree camera, Cortana recognized and greeted the journalist, transcribing their conversation. Microsoft is also researching using its HoloLens AR headset for visualizing data in 3D, in a demo that showed the data displayed in AR on the HoloLens, on a display and a Surface tablet.

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“Instead of naïvely hoping it will take over everything,” notes The Verge about Nadella’s strategy, “It’s just working on the stuff it’s good at … And instead of promising a future that we know isn’t going to happen anytime soon, it’s building on what it has now.”

“You really need to anchor yourself on that sense of purpose and identity, a culture that allows you to express that identity and sense of purpose with changing technology,” said Nadella. “You need a culture that allows you to learn and to be open to new ideas. Otherwise, it’s lethal in this business.”

He revealed that, “Azure is available across 50 regions,” although “right as the cloud has become mainstream, the edge of the cloud is where the action is.” He also noted that Xiaomi built a device based on Microsoft cognitive capabilities in speech recognition and machine translation. “That’s a real application of AI,” he said.

The New York Times reports that, among the five most valuable tech companies, “Microsoft is the only one to avoid sustained public criticism about contributing to social ills in the last couple of years.” The company, it says, “seems to be auditioning for a different role: the industry’s moral conscience.” Nadella and president Brad Smith have both “emerged as some of the most outspoken advocates in the industry for protecting user privacy and establishing ethical guidelines for new technology like artificial intelligence.”

At Build, Nadella, who has said that his son’s struggle with cerebral palsy made him more empathic, announced AI for Accessibility, which will distribute $25 million over five years “to researchers, nonprofits and developers who use artificial intelligence to help people with disabilities.”

Microsoft’s market capitalization of $733 billion makes it “the third most valuable technology company, behind Apple and Amazon and ahead of Google parent company, Alphabet, and Facebook.”

“The irony for Microsoft is that they lost in search, they lost in social networks and they lost in mobile, and as a consequence, they have avoided the recent pushback from governments and media,” said Harvard Business School professor David Yoffie. “This has given Microsoft the freedom to take the high road as the ethical leader in technology.”