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2018 - the year AI comes to the fore

RESEARCHERS have been working on artificial intelligence (AI) for decades, but my colleagues and I at Microsoft believe that 2018 will be the year AI comes to the fore and begins to drive real impact in a truly ubiquitous and meaningful way.

Increased availability of data, growing cloud computing power, and more powerful algorithms are giving rise to computing systems that can see, hear, learn and reason, creating new opportunities to improve education and healthcare, address poverty and achieve a more sustainable future.

In business, AI is also fast becoming one of the top technologies organisations are exploring to accelerate their own digital transformation as they seek to create new value for their customers in today's digital-first world.

AMPLIFYING HUMAN INGENUITY

AI needs to be people first and technology second. Put simply, we need to develop AI to augment human capabilities, especially humankind's innate ingenuity. When we do this, we combine the capabilities of computers with human capabilities to enable people to achieve more.

Take the example of Seeing AI, a Microsoft research project in development, which is available today as a free app designed for the visually impaired and blind community to help them narrate the world around them. Seeing AI uses computer vision, image and speech recognition, natural language processing and machine learning from Microsoft's Cognitive Services and Office Lens to help describe a person's surroundings, read text, answer questions and even identify emotions on people's faces.

DEMOCRATISING AI

At Microsoft, we believe that people around the world can benefit from AI - but only if AI technologies are available for them.

For our customers, we are building AI capabilities into our most popular products, such as Windows and Office. Windows is more secure thanks to AI systems that detect malware and automatically protect computers against it. And PowerPoint Presentation Translator lets you engage diverse audiences more effectively by breaking down language barriers through auto-captioning in over 60 languages. This feature will also aid people with hearing loss.

As we infuse intelligence into everything, whether it is your keyboard, your camera, or business applications, we aim to take that same capability and make it available to every developer and democratise it so that everyone can use the same building blocks that we use to build our technologies such as Office, Cortana, and Dynamics 365.

DESIGNING AI

The development and deployment of AI must be guided by ethical principles that are deeply rooted in timeless values. We believe that six principles should provide the foundation for the development and deployment of AI-powered solutions that will put humans at the centre:

  • Fairness: When AI systems make decisions about medical treatment or employment, for example, they should make the same recommendations for everyone with similar symptoms or qualifications. To ensure fairness, we must understand how bias can affect AI systems.
  • Reliability: AI systems must be designed to operate within clear parameters and undergo rigorous testing to ensure that they respond safely to unanticipated situations and do not evolve in ways that are inconsistent with original expectations. People should play a critical role in making decisions about how and when AI systems are deployed.
  • Privacy and security: Like other cloud technologies, AI systems must comply with privacy laws that regulate data collection, use and storage, and ensure that personal information is used in accordance with privacy standards and protected from theft.
  • Inclusiveness: AI solutions must address a broad range of human needs and experiences through inclusive design practices that anticipate potential barriers in products or environments that can unintentionally exclude people.
  • Transparency: As AI increasingly impacts people's lives, we must provide contextual information about how AI systems operate so that people understand how decisions are made and can more easily identify potential bias, errors and unintended outcomes.
  • Accountability: People who design and deploy AI systems must be accountable for how their systems operate. Accountability norms for AI should draw on the experience and practices of other areas, such as healthcare and privacy, and be observed both during system design and in an ongoing manner as systems operate in the world.

REALISING THE POTENTIAL OF AI

As AI continues to transform the nature of work, we will need to think in new ways about education, skills and training to ensure that people are prepared for the jobs of the future and businesses have access to the talent they need to succeed. And as traditional models of employment transform, we will need to modernise legal frameworks to recognise new ways of working, provide adequate worker protection and maintain social safety nets.

To enable people to thrive in today's economy, and prepare for tomorrow's, we believe it is critical to focus on the following areas:

  • Preparing today's students: Every young person should have the opportunity to study computer science. The skills they gain will open the door to higher-paying jobs in faster-growing fields. This means equitable access to rigorous and engaging computer science courses and a focus on uniquely human skills must be top priorities.
  • Supporting today's workers: We must also help today's workers gain skills that are relevant in the changing workplace. Distance and online learning and investments in on-the-job training programmes will be essential. We will also need to improve how we identify the skills that businesses need.
  • Creating a skills-based marketplace: To help companies find qualified employees and enable workers to find jobs, we'll need to move from a degree-based system to one that uses credentials that are widely recognised and valued by employers.
  • Providing legal certainty for employers and workers: The rise of the on-demand economy raises important questions that are not clearly addressed by existing laws about how we classify workers. To enable innovation and to protect workers, legal certainty must be created so that workers and businesses understand their rights and obligations.
  • Developing industry standards to protect workers: Business leaders have an opportunity to play a significant role in reshaping employment policy in the emerging economy by setting their own standards for on-demand engagements that include fair pay and treatment for on-demand workers.
  • Ensuring benefits move with workers and modernising social safety nets: as the nature of work evolves with technology innovation, the traditional system of employer-provided benefits and government-supported social safety needs to be reformed to provide adequate coverage for workers and a sustainable contribution structure for businesses.

At Microsoft, we are optimistic about the opportunities that AI provides to create a better future for all.

To ensure that we realise this future, it will be essential for governments, businesses, academics and civil society to work together in creating trustworthy AI systems and prepare people for a world where the skills they need to succeed will be constantly changing. This will require the development of AI in ways that are human-centred and can ensure broad and fair access to its benefits as we move forward together.

  • The writer is managing director, Microsoft Singapore

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