SAN FRANCISCO – Melinda Gates made an interesting cultural observation about subtle bias against women during a fireside chat at Salesforce's user conference here last week.

Why, wondered the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are the default voices for popular digital assistants like Siri, Alexa and Cortana always women?

"Why are the women assistants? That's a hidden bias,” she said. 

“In the workforce I work with, there are a lot of male assistants.”

Dreamforce: From Serious to Silly

Gates' observation earned her a round of applause from attendees at Dreamforce, where she joined NBC television personality Robin Roberts to discuss the role of women in technology.

It was part of a larger message about options to increase diversity at tech companies, a change that starts with encouraging more girls and young women to learn to code and major in computer science fields. 

"It must start early and be nurtured so girls don’t give up or feel they don’t belong," she said.

Gates' serious comments were in striking contrast to some of the playful and borderline silly events during the four-day conference. From an inaugural event in 2003 that attracted 1,300 attendees, Dreamforce has evolved to a massive event that attracted more than 170,000 attendees this year.

While the conference was light on Salesforce product announcements, many of which were released in advance, there was plenty of entertainment and diversions. 

Dreamforce planners turned Moscone Center into a giant forest with mock fires, grass and trees. Attendees were able to earn the equivalent of scout badges (and Dreamforce swag) by trying out the platforms and listening to seminars.

Focus on AI

Every Dreamforce conference has a theme. This year, the focus was on artificial intelligence (AI) — and how a new platform called Einstein will change the way customers use Salesforce.

Salesforce co-founder and CTO Parker Harris predicted Einstein would make users smarter and enable them to work easier. It’s more promise than reality right now, but Salesforce is banking on Einstein to be a major differentiator for its customer relationship management (CRM) platform.

Custom Salesforce Integrations

Salesforce partners and vendors were equally enamored with AI, especially in regard to delivering a more automated experience with less input.

Representatives from FinancialForce, for example, showed off a custom integration with Amazon Echo that enables users to tap directly into Salesforce. FinancialForce CTO Andy Fawcett said customers should expect to see Einstein-powered features built right into the platform over time.

Philanthrophic Endeavors

The conference also included persistent philanthropic messaging. This year, one of the featured partners was (RED), which set out to raise $1 million at Dreamforce to fight AIDS.

Suzanne DiBianca, EVP of corporate relations and chief philanthropy officer at Salesforce, said Salesforce also helps select non-profits use its tools for better data analysis.

End Malaria Now, for example, used Salesforce for analytics about the effectiveness of its charitable work to ensure effective use of contributions.

“By tracking the distribution of supplies through Salesforce, the company can report back and track how many bed nets they gave out to which homes, then go back in six to 12 months and look at the malaria rates to see if there was an impact where the bed nets were sent,” she said.

CEO Marc Benioff stressed that Salesforce is part of the Pledge One Percent, where companies agree to donate one percent of their time, equity and product to philanthropic causes.

“Philanthropy is a core value for Salesforce,” Benioff said.