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Satya Nadella speaks at Microsoft Ignite 2016 (GeekWire Photos / Kevin Lisota)

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has long credited the democratizing effect of technology for his rise to the top. As part of Microsoft’s Ignite conference in Atlanta this week Nadella went in depth on Microsoft’s strategy on artificial intelligence and its goal of “democratizing AI.” Nadella described the four pillars of accomplishing that goal: agents (like Cortana), applications, services, and infrastructure.

Nadella also took a thinly-veiled shot at Google, appearing to make light of its quest to defeat a human competitor in the game of Go through its DeepMind initiative. Here are a few other key takeaways from Nadella on artificial intelligence from a transcript of his speech at Ignite.

AI and the greater good: “We are not pursuing AI to beat humans at games. We are pursuing AI so that we can empower every person and every institution that people build with tools of AI, so that they can go on to solve the most pressing problems of our society and our economy.”

Why Microsoft wants to democratize AI: “It’s never about our technology. It is really, to me, about your passion, your imagination, and what you can do with technologies that we create. What societal problem, what industry will you reshape?  That is what we dream about, what we’re passionate about. We want to pursue democratizing AI just like we pursued information at your fingertips.  But this time around, we want to bring intelligence to everything, to everywhere, and for everyone.”

How Microsoft is using AI: “The ability to reason over large amounts of data and convert that into intelligence. That intelligence shows up as handwriting recognition on Windows 10, or the Windows Hello feature, the ability to face recognize you, or even magical new devices like the holographic computer, where you have the ability to digitally reconstruct and recognize everything that you see and then to superimpose objects in that world. How we infuse every application, Cortana, Office 365, Dynamics 365 with intelligence. And the building blocks that constitute intelligence that are available as developer services in Azure.”

How AI can simplify customer service: “A similar approach is what we’re taking with customer service. Again, traditionally what we have one is to build, again, a model of what a customer service agent does, how do they open a case, how do they escalate a case, how do they keep track of all of the workflows that happen within the customer service department.

Really customer service starts with the customer contact. So at Microsoft we, today, have at a virtual assistant. This is live in U.S. English today, and we’re going to expand this to all countries. So customers come in and interact with the agent. They ask it questions, this virtual agent answers those questions. But, of course, it also runs out of steam and needs to escalate to a real customer service from time to time.

And that’s when the real magic starts. If you go behind the scenes, this is the interface that our customer service reps are using today. What you have on the left-hand side is the conversational canvas where the customer service rep is interacting with the customers, solving their problems. But the bot or the assistant is on the right-hand side. It is, in fact, helping the customer service rep get better.”


On the internet’s explosive growth in the last few decades: “It’s pretty stunning to see the amount of data, the amount of information that we are generating. I was just reading this weekend a report from the IDC which says in 2015 we generated close to 10 zettabytes of data. What’s fascinating to me is what that report projects we will generate in 2025. We will generate something like 180 zettabytes. I mean we’re getting to a point where we don’t even know what to name things. We’re getting to a point where that march from peta to exa to zetta, what comes next, we don’t even know.”

AI as a way to analyze the endless catalog of information at our fingertips: “So in all of this information explosion what has remained scarce is something that I’ve talked about in the past: It’s human attention and time. Our ability to make sense of all of this information. So that’s really what we all need to turn our attention to. We’ve used technology very successfully to democratize both creation of information and the distribution and access of information. And now we need to turn to technology to democratize creation and access to intelligence.”

The printing press as the first information equalizer: “But to truly understand and perhaps build even more of a perspective, let’s step way back to perhaps what is the first machine that democratized access to information, the printing press. In 1450 or so when the printing press came out, the Guttenberg Bible got published, removable type became prevalent. Before that we had something like 30,000 books in the world. And 50 years after the printing press we had 12 million books. It changed how humans both created information and used information. You can, in fact, trace back everything in the modern era to our ability to create and diffuse information and learn.”

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