'Privacy is a human right': Big cheese Sat-Nad lays out Microsoft's stall at Future Decoded

Satya Nadella at FutureDecoded
Satya Nadella getting excited about Azure and AI at Future Decoded

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella took to the stage at Microsoft's Future Decoded shindig today in London. As has become the norm these days in events when the chief is not dispensing bonzer financials, much was made of the three As: Azure, AI and Accessibility.

Nadella opened by congratulating Microsoft and, by extension, himself, for "building out Azure as the world's computer". He highlighted the 54 regions around the globe in which the cloudy infrastructure operates before modestly stating the number was "more than any other provider". Yeah, take that to the bank, AWS, take that and your larger market share.

Even the watery Natick data centre got a nod from Nadella in an effort to bolster the company's eco-credentials by using the ocean as a giant heat sink.

Oggy oggy oggy, AI AI AI

AI was, however, the focus for Nadella. The CEO highlighted Microsoft's firsts in the field to date, ending with human parity in translation in March 2018 and insisting that kind old Microsoft had "democratised" the technology thanks to Azure AI.

But Azure ain't free so that "democratisation" comes at a fee. Just like the real thing (or so it seems these days).

Earlier in Future Decoded, Microsoft had announced the arrival of AccountGuard for UK customers "in the political space". The service, which is already available for US users, ramps up protections on a politico's Office 365 account as well as providing a direct line to Microsoft's Defending Democracy team.

All part of protecting the democratic process. For Office 365 users at any rate.

The theme of AI continued throughout Nadella's keynote as the CEO wrestled with the thorny issue of trust.

Taking a page from Apple's playbook, Nadella was keen to highlight the efforts made by the Microsoft in privacy. Amazon, in its September gadgetfest, famously failed to utter the "P" word once. Nadella, on the other hand, was more forthright, seeing the recently introduced GDPR as a good first step before declaring: "Privacy is a human right."

Hopefully Facebook was paying attention.

The only way is ethics

Slightly more controversially, Nadella also touched on ethics and AI. Microsoft has been wrestling with this issue for some time. Confusingly, the CEO insisted that an AI trained for one purpose being used for another was "an unethical use". Make of that what you will.

Of course, ethical behaviour extends beyond the AI sphere, and Nadella assured the audience of Microsoft fans that the software giant also thinks long and hard about the human rights record of a region before plonking down a data centre and giving the local regime access to Azure's cloudy toys. How that squares with regions in China depends, as ever, on one's definition of "human rights".

Nadella trotted out a few localised crowdpleasers, highlighting the role of Microsoft's AI in UK retailer Marks & Spencer's attempts to turn its business around (although we fear that it will take more than a clever AI spotting spilled yoghurt to fix the woes (PDF) of M&S) and the transition of the UK's NHS to Windows 10 as an example of securing infrastructure. Or, as the unkind might say, slamming the stable door long after the WannaCry horse has bolted.

Wheel out the soundbyte person

To Microsoft's credit, a good deal of the keynote was devoted to its efforts to improve technology accessibility. A UK government minister, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Esther McVey, was nudged on stage to thank the Windows maker and its developers for their work.

McVey, who has form in downplaying awkward facts, remarked that a mere 15 years ago, touchscreens were costly and bulky. But now – guess what – we have the Microsoft Surface Pro. Any Apple fanbois in attendance would have choked on their pumpkin lattes.

With any mention of Windows being restricted to a reminder that NHS Scotland is migrating to Windows 10 (with up to 161,000 lucky employees receiving Office 365), the keynote and Future Decoded itself served as a reminder that Microsoft's focus remains squarely on AI and the cloudy world of Azure. ®




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