With a rueful smile, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella acknowledged on stage at the GeekWire Summit that “one of the (really bizarre) things to do is speculate in technology about the future.” After all, we’re still waiting for the flying cars and jetpacks we were promised in the 1980s.
But Nadella has a pretty prescient track record when it comes to setting his career, operating group, and eventually one of the world’s most iconic technology companies on the right path to the future. During an interview with GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop Wednesday morning, he identified three core technologies — mixed reality (how Microsoft describes a blend of augmented reality and virtual reality), artificial intelligence, and quantum computing — are shaping the way Microsoft prepares for the uncertain future.
Nadella’s view of mixed reality “is that’s a dial that you get to set,” whether you’re looking for a fully-immersive virtual reality experience that will likely define the future of video games or an additive augmented reality experience that will layer digital context over the real world on mobile devices or wearable computers.
In order to set the levels for that dial, artificial intelligence expertise will be required to understand context and help designers strike the right balances without freaking out users of the technology, Nadella said.
For example, Microsoft announced earlier this year that its Hololens virtual reality device will ship with a custom-designed chip called the Holographic Processing Unit, which was built to quickly process the enormous amount of data coming from the sensors in a Hololens and render a compelling user interface for wearers of the device. “I think AI is going to be very much part of bringing forth these new UI metaphors,” he said.
And as powerful artificial intelligence technology begins to scale, it’s going to start running up against the limits of conventional computing. That brings us to the third part of Nadella’s plan for Microsoft, to develop breakthroughs in quantum computing.
Quantum computing is a bit of a holy grail in the tech industry, something that has been talked about forever but which is going to require some fundamental advances in materials science and programming techniques to harness. Unlike conventional computing, in which data is represented as a series of 0s and 1s, quantum computing allows for the presentation of data in several different states, which could dramatically increase the amount of processing power available to developers.
In some areas, we’re already running up against the limits of even our best modern computers, Nadella said. There are all sorts of chemical reactions that take place in nature that our computers can’t model, and if we want to make breakthroughs in medical research or solve the inevitable climate problems left to future generations by a century’s worth of pollution, we need to figure out a way to solve these computational problems.
“If you try to solve (these problems) using a classical computer, it will take all the time, from sort of the beginning of time until now,” he said. “Obviously, we don’t have that time.”