“What’s in front of us is a revolution.”
These were the opening words of Pip Simeon, Microsoft Partner Marketing Lead, to a room packed with business and public sector leaders gathered on Auckland’s waterfront for Microsoft’s first New Zealand Future Now conference.
The sense of momentum was palpable as Pip continued her introduction by saying, “Welcome to the Future! Which sounds a bit sci-fi but trust me it’s not. Because today is not about what’s coming, it’s about what is here.”
And so began Future Now, an event that drew more than 800 movers and shakers, with hundreds more on the waiting list to hear how AI is changing the world.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that how New Zealand responds economically and socially to AI is going to shape the fabric of our society,” said Pip Simeon. “IDC research shows that six per cent of New Zealand’s GDP is currently generated by digital technology. That’s forecast to increase to 55 per cent by 2021.”
Pip introduced keynote speaker, Ryan Fuller, Corporate Vice-president of Workplace Analytics, who remarked that data is now so prevalent in our lives that in some sense, “The world is a computer.”
Ryan was in hot demand for his insights into how intelligent machines will drive the next industrial revolution. Organisations still analyse just 1 per cent of all the data they capture, but in the dawning era, Ryan Fuller made the observation that “invisible” information is going to underpin how we live, work and manage our environment the same way electricity or the combustion engine have done. “You won’t see it, but the effects will be immense.”
During breakout sessions, Microsoft’s New Zealand partners and customers revealed the exciting things that are already being achieved through data-driven AI. Retail, education, agriculture and the financial services sector were all in the spotlight, but the most eye-popping moment was a 3D tour of the brain.
In a demonstration not for the squeamish, Microsoft New Zealand’s Marketing Lead, Chris Dick, was shown a simulation of a 3D brain using HoloLens technology that allows people to view tumours in virtual reality. Instead of squinting at a hazy slide, patients can clearly see where the tumour is and which parts will be treated, giving them a greater feeling of control at what is often a scary time.
Meanwhile Umbrellar Head of Cloud, Dave Howden, revealed the way Power BI is helping private healthcare provider Mercy Hospital track how its MRI machines are used and who misses appointments, so it can deploy the machines to where they’re needed.
The Microsoft’s inaugural event was also a platform to demonstrate that AI is an important driver of new solutions to address some of our biggest societal challenges. Damon Kelly, Enlighten Designs CEO and Microsoft Partner, showcased an exciting new initiative with Sustainable Coastlines aiming to make citizen scientists of us all by arming us with right data and insights to help keep our country clean, green and beautiful.
Kelly said, “We have partnered with Sustainable Coastlines and Microsoft’s Azure platform to develop an AI-powered tool that empowers Kiwis in cleaning up New Zealand’s beaches. The tool is the first of its kind in New Zealand and uses Microsoft’s Cognitive Services, alongside a United Nations Environment Programme methodology, to help communities around the country capture and categorise what litter is on our beaches.”
Working alongside the Ministry for the Environment, Department of Conservation and Statistics New Zealand, data collected from Sustainable Coastlines’ new tool will be used to help establish a New Zealand-first national litter database.
Future Now truly showed what is here now as well as offering attendees a glimpse of what is to come. And it was not simply enterprise and business: Future Now placed a lens on the impact AI will have on culture. Inspirational speaker Te Aroha Morehu, Innovation Officer Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, discussed how AI and data must be used to maintain the delicate balance between growth and guardianship. His presentation covered a swathe of history and then went on to detail a fascinating project which saw the preserving of ancient stories using the cutting-edge HoloLens.
Te Aroha, Microsoft and local partner Datacom have woven the stories of his iwi, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, into cutting-edge HoloLens technology, blending old and new, growth and guardianship. These stories can now be preserved, enjoyed and shared for centuries to come. Today the Kāhu Pōkere, the eagle atop the pou that soars above the entrance of the Marae, has been brought to life in three-dimensional interactive detail using HoloLens.
The general theme of Future Now was that it’s not just businesses who will benefit from AI – it’s people. Ryan Fuller cited a rather gloomy quote from psychologist Barry Schwartz to highlight how AI can help every one of us in our working lives: “Nine out of ten workers spend half their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing in places they don’t particularly want to be.
“Can AI solve that? The Microsoft Graph is the largest data set about work that has ever existed, giving us unprecedented insights into what we actually do all day. Understanding those patterns can help us greatly improve our experience of work.”
And underpinning every discussion was a serious message: a robust, ethical framework is essential to ensure AI develops for the benefit of us all. Echoing the sentiment of Brad Smith, Microsoft’s Chief Legal Officer, Ryan made the point that: “Ultimately the question is not only what computers can do. It’s what they should do, or should not do.”
A philosophy highlighted in the concluding presentation by Michael Brick, New Zealand’s Corporate and Legal Director: “Microsoft has several key pillars that guide us: privacy, security and the ethical use of AI. We think of privacy as a basic human right. Tech users should be in control of their own data, know what data is being collected about them, have the right to consent to the use of that data and know why they’re consenting. It’s something we’re all going to have to work on constantly and we want to engage as many people as possible to ensure our privacy and security are protected. Our success is your success.”