We live in a world where innovative technologies have made what once seemed extraordinary—even impossible—entirely commonplace. We travel to faraway continents, work from anywhere, connect with people in distant locations, access a world’s worth of news and information, and so much more. And we do it all with barely a second thought.
But for all that technology makes possible, solutions to many of humanity’s fundamental issues remain beyond our reach. Despite sweeping advances in our knowledge of meteorology and agriculture, farmers are still vulnerable to unpredictable weather conditions that can wipe out a season’s worth of crops before harvest. More than 1 billion people across the globe have disabilities that limit their independence and their access to economic opportunities. And while the number of people around the world who live in extreme poverty has been cut in half over the past quarter century, more than 800 million people still suffer from hunger and malnutrition.
Now, however, we may be on the verge of addressing even those problems. Today, a new generation of technology innovations is opening the door to capabilities that offer the promise of real progress in our efforts to tackle our most complex and difficult challenges. In the process, they offer the potential to expand access to economic opportunity and create stronger communities across Asia as more and more people gain the ability to participate in the digital economy.
Across Asia, for example, people with visual impairments are taking advantage of Seeing AI—a free app that reads signs and menus, identifies currency, and even interprets facial expressions and then describes what it sees—to navigate the world with greater ease than has ever been possible.
In Andhra Pradesh on the southeast coast of India, farmers have relied for centuries on tradition and guesswork to manage crops, a pilot project is underway in which researchers use climate data, real-time weather conditions, sophisticated forecasting models, and text messages to let farmers know the optimal time to plant, apply fertilizer, and harvest. In its first year, the project protected 175 participating farmers from a month-long drought that decimated their neighbors’ crops. In year two of the project, 3,000 farmers saw yields increase by as much as 30 percent.
And in China, researchers have developed an AI-based system that captures a high-resolution image of the retina at the back of the eyeball, which it analyzes to detect illnesses including diabetes, hypertension, optic nerve disease, and age-related macular degeneration. Called Airdoc, it takes advantage of the fact that examining the human retina is an effective way to assess the health not just of the eye, but also to look for evidence of the onset of other diseases.
These projects grow out of advances in artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities such as machine learning, natural language comprehension, and object recognition that are giving rise to a new generation of computers that will perceive, learn, reason, and make recommendations. Already, AI powers the apps that suggest the fastest route to get from place to place, help companies predict what customers might like to buy or watch, and enable security software to detect junk email and malware.
This is clearly just the beginning. The impact of AI on science, medicine, education, agriculture, and transportation promises a future in which increased productivity and an outpouring of innovation will drive economic growth and opportunity and deliver new solutions for age-old problems.
How much growth? According to a recent report from PwC, AI will increase global GDP by as much as 14 percent by 2030, a contribution to the global economy of nearly $16 trillion. Asia will account for more than half of that increase, with China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong all playing a significant role in the development of AI technologies and solutions. PwC predicts that in less-developed nations in Asia, AI will increase GDP by more than 5 percent over the next dozen years.
But history makes clear that change at this scale never comes without disruption. Today, countries around the world are scrambling to understand how to reap the gains AI can deliver while minimizing the potential negative impact. Finding the right path forward won’t be easy. Over the next few years, we’ll need to redefine the balance between privacy, innovation, and public safety, and take steps to ensure that the benefits of AI are broadly shared and the opportunities it offers are accessible to all.
At Microsoft, we believe the quest for answers to these issues begins with a “human-centered” approach that sees AI not as a substitute for human insight and judgment but as a powerful tool to help us understand the world more clearly and make better decisions. The idea isn’t to replace people with machines, but to augment human ingenuity and eliminate routine tasks so that people can focus on work that is more strategic and more rewarding.
Trust will be essential, too. While we are highly optimistic about the potential for today’s technology innovation to deliver wide-ranging benefits in countries and communities around the globe, we know that the future we envision can only be achieved if people trust that technology companies are working not just to maximize profits, but to improve people’s lives.
Where does trust come from?
We believe it begins by recognizing that privacy is a fundamental human right and that technology companies like Microsoft must only use their customers’ personal information in ways that reflect their preferences and their expectations. Cybersecurity is also essential—safeguarding people’s data and privacy, and protecting the digital infrastructure that we all depend on is critical to trust.
Transparency is another vital element of trust. As we move into this new era of AI-driven transformation, businesses must be clear not only about how we use our customers’ information, but about how we operate and how we work with our partners.
And, of course, trust depends on ensuring that everyone benefits from the opportunities that AI creates—this is the heart of human-centered technology and it will require a broad effort to empower people of every age with the skills and knowledge needed to participate in Asia’s digital economy.
But the questions we will face in the coming years are too important to be left solely to the private sector. Governments across Asia have a vital role to play in creating trust by assessing the potential societal and economic impacts of these technologies so they can implement new frameworks that reflect their nation’s values and traditions, and foster innovation and progress. Ultimately, the best solutions will come when governments, industry, and communities work together to create an environment that encourages discovery and invention, and promotes fair and inclusive access to the capabilities and opportunities that result.
As a leader in developing the technologies that are driving this transformation, Microsoft recognizes that we have a responsibility to convene conversations that bring policy makers, researchers, academics, leaders from business and civil society, and concerned citizens together to explore the issues that are emerging. To serve as a catalyst for these discussions, Microsoft has been examining the potential impact of technology innovation through a series of books including A Cloud for Global Good and The Future Computed: AI and Its Role in Society.
I believe we’ve arrived at a pivotal moment. The opportunity to use AI to create solutions that improve people’s lives here in Asia and around the world is real. I’m excited to explore how we can build a strong foundation of trust in Asia through approaches that will help ensure that the opportunities that AI are available to all and the disruptions are balanced by greater prosperity that benefits everyone.