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A future in which artificial intelligence has become so pervasive that it’s invisible and bots, rather than people, lead our service experiences is the stuff of sci-fi movies. But that future isn’t so far off and, in fact, might not be as scary as we think, says Microsoft’s David Forstrom.
Under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft wants to break boundaries in AI technology, says Forstrom, who BizTech Managing Editor Ann Longmore-Etheridge chatted with at Microsoft Ignite in Orlando, Fla.
Forstrom, director of AI communications, talked about the evolution of the technology, how Microsoft has begun embedding it into products, such as Office and Cortana, and how it can become a go-to tool for small businesses.
BIZTECH: Why is artificial intelligence important, and what has led to its increased importance in the workplace?
Forstrom: AI addresses the ultimate barrier that we face as humans: information and our limited capacity to absorb and act on it.
What has exploded in the last few years is three things: the cloud, which makes data accessible to the world; two, data — enormous amounts of it; and three, advanced algorithms. We’ve had huge breakthroughs from a research perspective just the last couple years that have allowed us to do things like achieve 96 percent accuracy in image detection or human parity in speech recognition.
We’ve even been able to integrate translation into Skype and now into productivity products like Office and PowerPoint.
BIZTECH: What are some real-world use cases that demonstrate how Cortana can be a valuable tool for small businesses?
Forstrom: We’re busy professionals, and Cortana, because it has access to our information, can see if we have made commitments. So, if I have emailed someone and said, “Let’s revisit this topic in three months,” or “Let’s plan to get together about this in a few weeks,” Cortana will actually remind me and say, “I see you made this commitment. Do you want to schedule a meeting for that?” Or, “It looks like you’re going to need to prepare a document for this meeting.”
Another one is calendaring. Let’s say you’re a small business working with partners and vendors, and rather than going to each individual and saying, “Can we meet next Wednesday? What times do you have open?” you can invoke Cortana to assist with that.
Cortana will look at those people’s calendars and availability, and come back with a meeting time that suits everyone. Or, it may say, “Everyone is available at this time, except for one person. Do you want to proceed with scheduling this block of time?”
Cortana is going to evolve into a personal assistant — a true person assistant. If you think about the practices of a personal assistant in real physical life, it’s extending that into the digital realm. It can be available to you throughout your workday, from home to your small business and back home. It’s still early days, though, for Cortana in business.
BIZTECH: If you’re a small business with limited resources to invest in AI technology, what is your best game plan?
Forstrom: I think businesses right now are recognizing that AI is here to stay. It’s not a flash in the pan. In some shape or form, it will be infused into most of our interactions and our technologies.
Small businesses, first of all, need to look at what problems they’re solving for. A good example of how AI can help is bots, which are something many small businesses are entertaining right now to incorporate into their customer service and engagement.
We did a lot of surveying and research across the Seattle area, talking to a lot of businesses, small and large, about how they could see using bots. In one case, in talking with a restaurant owner, it became clear that the hosts were answering phone calls all the time: people calling wanting to know the hours, or the menu, or about gluten-free options, things like that. If the owner was able to implement a simple rules-based bot — if this question, then this answer — that could completely free up the staff to focus on core things they need to be doing to add more value.
Another area that we see small businesses incorporating AI is in the realm of cognitive services. If a business has a product or solution where they could implement computer vision or natural language understanding, where they are doing a lot of textual interaction with customers — those are fairly cheap. It requires a bit of developer and IT knowledge, but it’s low-level. This is low in cost, compared to complex deep-learning models of AI.
BIZTECH: Microsoft recently bought Hexadite, which underscores the growing role of automation in countering security threats. How do you think that automation will improve cybersecurity, and how will it affect the role of humans?
Forstrom: First and foremost is our principle that AI must augment humanity. Security is certainly one of these spaces we see intersecting quite rapidly with AI, and that’s because it’s all about data and the intelligent insights that you can glean out of that data to make decisions across your security portfolio.
Machines trained through deep learning models will be able to process our knowledge of a potential threat and be able to reach a conclusive decision on actions to be taken. But it’s still humans who are being amplified because it’s humans that are making the decisions at the C suite level or the chief security officer level in terms of, “How do we act on that?”
BIZTECH: Speculatively, in five to 10 years, what is the business environment for AI going to look like?
Forstrom: You can think about it like electricity: It’s all around us, totally pervasive in our lives; it manifests to power our devices and things like that. But we don’t talk or think about it. It just happens. It’s there. And it betters my life and enables me to do more.
That’s the future that we see with AI, especially when you get 10 years or further out. The office of the future will be an AI-infused environment, where we benefit from all of these features and functionality, but we don’t think about them anymore.
There are already AI-driven features in PowerPoint and Microsoft Word that are being used, but users don’t recognize that as AI. It’s just the product.
We’ll really start to see a shift away from some of the fears of today, that AI will cause a sort of dystopian environment, to where people realize it does better their lives and increases their productivity.
Read more articles from BizTech coverage of Microsoft Ignite 2017 here.