ATLANTA — Just hours before the first US Presidential debate — on a day when stupidity seemed to be on the top of everyone's mind — Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella spoke passionately about artificial intelligence (AI) as a cornerstone of Microsoft's next horizon of innovation.
It was a strange juxtaposition of realities: the world as we know it, grounded in the banal and the predictable, versus the world as Nadella envisions it, fueled by AI in every app, every interaction, everywhere.
Empowering People to Improve Society
During the second keynote on the opening day of Microsoft's Ignite conference here, Nadella explained how his company is pursuing AI and deep learning to empower every person and every institution "to solve the most pressing problems of our society and our economy."
Nadella made his remarks to a packed crowd at Philips Arena, just across the street from the Georgia World Congress Center where the Ignite conference kicked off today. About 23,000 people, primarily IT professionals, are attending the five-day event.
Earlier in the day, Microsoft Executive Vice President Scott Guthrie started the conference with a keynote focused on the company's current and soon to be released products and services.
Nadella, in contrast, left practical realities behind to deliver a speech designed to inspire the attendees to dream of possibilities. "It's never about our technology," he said.
“It is really to me about your passion, your imagination, and what you can do with technologies that we create. What societal problem, what industry will you reshape. That’s really what we dream about. We want to democratize AI just like we brought information to your fingertips.”
Microsoft's Plan to Democratize Data
Nadella appeared both sincere and impassioned as he revealed specifics of Microsoft's four-pronged strategy to democratize data.
He explained how the company is harnessing AI through agents like Cortana, "your indispensable personal assistant"; applications like Office 365 and its CRM service Dynamics 365; developer tools and platforms like the Cortana Intelligence Suite; and infrastructure such as the Azure cloud computing platform.
He revealed how Cortana can take text input and speech input that knows you deeply. "It knows your context, your family, your work. It knows about the world,” he said, adding that it will be available on every platform and in every application, even those not controlled by Microsoft.
Using AI to Advance Mainstream Products
Nadella talked about adding intelligence to mainstream products like Office 365. He shared how deep learning can be used to create neural nets that loosely mimic the way the human brain understands information — help every person gain " magical typing skills" — suggested next words as they type, fueled by predictive analytics.
He noted that data underneath the applications of Office 365 is exposed in a graph structure, and that Microsoft has further developed a trusted, privacy preserving way to reason over this data and create intelligence.
That intelligence can be actualized in tools like the focused inbox in Outlook, Skype’s real-time translation, new tools like Tap in Word and sales data models within Dynamics 365, the company’s customer relationship management tool.
In time, he said off-handedly, the company could deepen the intelligence of its CRM tool through data from LinkedIn. Microsoft expects to close on the $26.2 billion acquisition of LinkedIn that it announced in June before the end of the year.
Microsoft: From Fantasy Football to Dream Kitchens
Even though Microsoft "is not pursuing AI to beat humans at games," Nadella brought former football and baseball player Deion Sanders to the stage to show how the company's deep learning is adding unparalleled intelligence to fantasy football.
Microsoft also demonstrated how Lowe’s is using its technologies to create a mixed-reality experience powered by HoloLens to simplify home renovations. Customers can manipulate cabinets, countertops, backsplashes and more through options based on deep learning of their preferences.
Is That All There Is?
Nadella's presentation had the potential to wow … and yet, it seemed to stop short. Like the song Peggy Lee popularized in the 1960s, a lot of people walked out of the arena in silence — with looks on their faces that seemed to ask "Is that all there is?"
One analyst told CMSWire after the presentation she was disappointed by the presentation, adding that she expected to hear "more news." Another, when asked his reaction, answered with a shrug.
Not everyone was underwhelmed, of course. Naomi Moneypenny, CTO Synxi, a company that provides a layer if intelligence for platforms including SharePoint and Yammer, was so enthusiastic Nadella rewarded her with a retweet.
And Constellation Research analyst Alan Lepofsky characterized Nadella's talk as inspiring.
Let's leave it on a high note.
Nadella's Ignite Innovation keynote is a impressive show of machine learning/AI power. Suddenly, this stuff feels imminent #msignite— kwe (@kwe) September 26, 2016
Title image by Asa Aarons Smith