[Editor’s Note: Atul Ajoy is a ninth grader at Redmond High School, a tech enthusiast and blogger who was invited by Microsoft to attend the Build developer conference in Seattle this past week. He shares his takeaways in this guest post.]
I was super-excited to attend Microsoft Build for the first time. Being a student, I definitely enjoyed the experience. I am very passionate about technology and have been working on a startup of my own. As I think about my role in the technology and business world, I believe that my friends and I, as teenagers, have a different perspective on technology than many of the other attendees at Microsoft Build.
For example, while some see AI as a potential threat like Ultron from Marvel’s Avengers, my friends and I see a more positive future where AI can help the human race rather than overthrow it. And this is important as AI was one of the three hotly discussed topics during the two Build keynotes and the sessions that followed. The other two were edge computing and mixed reality, both of which are closely related to AI. Both of these technologies have a place in our future and are important topics.
Over the past 5 years, artificial intelligence has exploded. Advances in algorithms and machine/deep learning have allowed developers around the world and companies in every industry to build experiences straight out of sci-fi movies. As explained by the Microsoft team at the AI Immersion pre-Build event, what James Watt’s steam engine did for the Industrial Revolution, AI and machine learning advances could do for the next 30 years with the Intelligence Revolution. Joseph Sirosh, CVP of Microsoft’s Data Platform drove this point home as he said that “there’s actually an incredible revolution in how software is built,” through the democratization of AI.
Parallel advances in the cloud have allowed for public APIs, like Microsoft’s Cognitive Services, that make applying AI in a powerful way really simple for anyone. Harry Shum, EVP of Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research Group, joked that after two years of updating the world about Cognitive Services in small sessions, he has finally been promoted by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to the main stage.
On a more serious note, I believe that these advances give us the opportunity to use AI as a tool for good. Examples like the non-profit organization, Cochrane, which is using artificial intelligence to create best practices for doctors around the world, show us that the world of AI is not a world of superhuman overlords and grave peril, but rather a world where we can help prematurely-born babies grow up healthy.
Another example was for workplace safety. Microsoft demoed a solution that could make sure that a construction site was safe for all of the people that worked there. It was an amazing demo that clearly had its value, but also brought up some concerns. Similar to “The Circle” in the movie of the same name, Microsoft’s usage of cameras that are constantly looking at everything brought some privacy implications that certainly need solving. Similar to the privacy and data concerns we hear about every day, having cameras constantly analyzing your workplace could definitely cause privacy issues for employees and enterprises themselves.
I also believe that Microsoft’s innovations in the field of AI are crucial for everyone, as to succeed with AI we need to work together to advance this technology regardless of differences. The announcements made at Build — like Cosmos DB, which is a globally distributed multi-model database service; SQL Server 2017, which now has built-in AI support; and Adaptive Cards, which allows for developers to build cards whose UI changes by channel in chatbots using the Bot Framework — are helping us get to the AI-powered future faster. In that future, every industry will be powered by AI or augmented by AI. As Microsoft emphasized, “disrupt or be disrupted.”
But making these new innovations proprietary software has its own disadvantages, with vendor lock-in being at the forefront. It will be hard to switch between Azure and other cloud providers, which makes companies more dependent on Microsoft. This can certainly curb the innovation that is so crucial to making AI work for us. That’s why I think open source innovations like Microsoft’s open source CNTK machine/deep learning toolkit, Google’s Tensor Flow, and the open source R language are helping out more by aiding in data science and building intelligent machines that can help us everywhere. I think this is really powerful for people around the world as it can help people live better, work better, and even see better.
Talking about seeing better, Microsoft is currently working on MINE, Microsoft Intelligent Network for Eyecare, with doctors in the US, India, and Australia, among others, to use large data sets and AI to help prevent people from going blind when blindness is avoidable. Imagine what value these advances in AI and machine learning can bring in the future. They are truly going to change our lives in ways we can’t even imagine. In the next 10 years, our daily lives might not even be similar to what we have today. I think that future is something we should all hope for.
Another step in creating this future is building what Microsoft calls “the intelligent edge.” In the past 10 years, we have made monumental progress in cloud computing, but Microsoft thinks that we can take that a step further. The next step is edge computing, which is also known as fog computing, which is a technology that allows for machine learning and data analytics at points called IoT gateways outside of the cloud. This allows for the machine learning to be done closer to the point where the data is actually created rather than in the cloud. This reaps an obvious benefit in time. By moving technical processes to the IoT gateways or the devices themselves, the turnaround time for solving problems is much faster.
For example, Sandvik Coromant, a Swedish company, is using the Azure IoT Edge to create a better telemetry and monitoring system to save millions of dollars. In this solution, switching to an edge computing system cut the turnaround time by around 20 times. But by making solutions like Azure Functions largely closed source, Microsoft is preventing developers from extending the solutions like what Apache OpenWhisk allows in the same area. This can cause problems for large scale businesses that need more control over their code. Purely from a technology standpoint, though, I think that edge computing is a crucial step in enabling production and mass IoT solutions as it simplifies and quickens the whole system.
The final step emphasized by Microsoft at Build 2017 was mixed reality. I believe that a truly immersive future cannot be achieved without augmented reality and virtual reality. Alex Kipman, a Technical Fellow in Microsoft’s Operating Systems Group, emphasized that we need to focus more on the “and” rather than the “or.”
After announcing the new Windows Mixed Reality motion controllers and the availability in Holiday 2017, Microsoft showed off a cool demo with Cirque De Soleil. But after being able to try the HoloLens on myself at Build, I can see various other uses for the holographic technology. Being a high school freshman, implementation in education comes to mind immediately. Whether it be modeling DNA structures in biology or modeling clay boxes before they are built in art, the HoloLens brings a unique value to teachers and students around the world. This form of mixed reality is a crucial step in reaching that immersive future that is powered by AI and edge computing.
Overall, Microsoft Build was an engaging event to be at this year. The AI and edge computing solutions demoed and announced at Build showed a promising future for all of us. Along with some new announcements around Azure and Windows, the AI and edge computing announcements showed us that Microsoft is at the forefront of technology, but not without vendor lock-in issues and certain privacy concerns. But as the technology community works together to fix those problems, I think we have more amazing technology to look forward to.