Demystifying AI: What you need to know to get ahead of the market trends

By Nigel Parker, Chief Engineer, Commercial Software Engineering, Microsoft Asia 

Approach not with fear, but curiosity and optimism. That’s how we at Microsoft are approaching Artificial Intelligence (AI). With access to computing power like never before, humanity is at the cusp of change through AI.

AI has the potential to be a powerful and pervasive force in our lives. It will augment human intelligence to transform industries—from transportation to manufacturing, finance, education, healthcare and more.

AI is a technology unlike any other. It’s a process, one that’s about us teaching machines to understand, well, us—to teach machines to be more human-like.

Intelligence with purpose

Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster who was defeated by the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1997, accurately summarized the differences between humans and machines. He said, “Machines have calculations. We have understanding. Machines have instructions. We have purpose. Machines have objectivity. We have passion.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said, “The future holds far greater promise than computers beating humans at games. Ultimately, humans and machines will work together – not against one another. However, advancing AI to this level will require an effort even more ambitious than a moon shot.”

I couldn’t agree more with this. The real beauty of AI happens when we augment humans with machines. I also agree with Satya that “AI will fail if it can’t complement its IQ with EQ.” For those of us creating AI solutions, we can’t simply focus on engineering intelligence into the machine; we must also focus on human qualities like ethics, empathy and emotion.

At the recent AI Asia conference in Singapore, Max Xu, CTO of KeyReply demonstrated Microsoft’s empathetic AI chatbot Xiaoice (pronounced Shao-ice) alongside other popular chatbots, and highlighted Xiaoice’s approach as being emotionally aware and always available. Xiaoice recognizes that the most important facet of a conversation is the conversation itself—not the completion of a single task—and constantly memorizes and analyzes a person’s emotional state and responding accordingly. “She” is better able to adapt phrasing and responses based on human cues, and as a result, Xiaoice averages 23 conversations per session (CPS) over tens of millions of conversations, compared to other popular chatbots that average between 2 and 3 CPS.

AI accelerated—What’s driving this change?

Tracing Earth’s history, one of the most important events concerning life on Earth was the Cambrian Acceleration that occurred about 540 million years ago. During the Cambrian Acceleration, the pace of evolution was exceptionally fast, which resulted in the divergence of most modern animal phyla.

Zoologist Andrew Parker theorized that the acceleration began when animals developed eyesight, which dramatically changed the predator-prey relationships and in turn, the diversification of lifeforms[1].

Today, we’re experiencing something analogous to the Cambrian Acceleration.

In Satya Nadella’s book, “Hit Refresh,” he reflects on these principles in the chapter “The Future of Humans and Machines,” where he likens the development of AI to birthing a new species:

  • AI must be designed to assist humanity.
  • AI must be transparent to everyone. We want not just intelligent machines but intelligible machines; not just artificial intelligence by symbiotic intelligence.
  • AI must maximize efficiencies without destroying the dignity of people.
  • AI must be designed for intelligent privacy.
  • AI must have algorithmic accountability so that humans can undo unintended harm.

AI enables machines to perceive their environment and takes actions to maximize their chance of success[2]. We call this AI Acceleration–there is no way to slow down AI’s progress. In fact, we need to it speed up.

We’re moving from what is today’s mobile-first, cloud-first world to a new paradigm that is going to be made up of an intelligent cloud and an intelligent edge. What this means is that as the Internet of Things evolves into the Internet of Everything and expands its reach into virtually every domain, high-speed data processing, analytics and machine learning will need to occur at the point closest to the data to reduce response times and data storage requirements, making AI seem instantaneous.

Even at this nascent stage, AI is providing significant opportunities for people across Asia. Earlier this year, I presented to a room of students at KAIST University in South Korea in English, and Microsoft’s Presentation Translator translated my presentation in real-time into Korean subtitles. This didn’t just keep my non-native-English-speaking audience engaged, it kept me in the moment. In fact, the room broke into applause when they saw the translations happening in real-time. It was one of those awe-inspiring moments for me where the technology disappeared, yet at the same time helped me to connect with every single person in the room.

Implications to businesses

Our worldview should evolve as technology evolves. As AI matures, we will see how it can benefit humanity. Today, AI is being infused with applications to enhance experiences. This influences a fundamental change in application development to drive profound improvement in the areas I’ve mentioned above.

We are now moving from a world of knowing what happened and why it happened (hindsight) to predicting what is going to happen and what is needed to make it happen (insight and foresight).

As machine intelligence becomes more and more capable, we will be able to infuse the entire edge with awareness to augment and expand human capability in ways that are both tangible and magical.

Even as we teach computers to be more human, we are ultimately leveraging technology to help make us better humans.


[1] Parker, Andrew (2003). In the Blink of an Eye. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books.

[2] Russell, Stuart J.; Norvig, Peter (2003), Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (2nd ed.)