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Microsoft’s role at the intersection of AI, people and society

By Harry Shum - Executive Vice President, Microsoft AI and Research Group

July 14, 2017

Harry Shum, executive vice president for Microsoft's AI and Research Group, speaks at an AI event in the U.K. on Wednesday.

When the field of artificial intelligence was founded more than five decades ago, computer scientists could only dream of the type of capabilities that an average consumer might now take for granted.

We are living in a golden age of AI advances. Every day, it seems like computer scientists are making more progress in areas such as computer vision, deep learning, speech and natural language processing — areas of AI research that have challenged the field’s foremost experts for decades.

Those breakthroughs are bringing to life tools including Microsoft Translator that were, only recently, the stuff of fantasy and science fiction. And these tools are, in turn, helping people in so many ways, by breaking down language barriers and facilitating communication.

The intersection of AI with people and society presents us with incredible opportunity and demanding challenges.

As AI breakthroughs abound, we as a technology company have the chance to channel all those innovations into tools that help people do their jobs better and more efficiently, and that solve some of the world’s toughest challenges. Using AI, we are already finding better ways to do things as seemingly narrow as determining what email warrants your attention and as astonishingly complex as discovering a personalized cancer treatment.

We are responsible for building AI advances that amplify human ingenuity, and also that reflect our shared societal values and expectations. The AI tools and services we create must assist humanity and augment our capabilities.

The people who use those tools should be able to understand how they work and what data they rely on. AI can be more useful if the people who created and use the tools can explain how they work and why decisions are made.

These AI advances should be as inclusive and unbiased as possible.

Just the beginning

Despite all the progress we’ve made so far, we know that we are still in the nascent stage of development of AI tools and technology. Technology that uses AI can perform specific tasks well, such as correctly identifying an image or recognizing the words in a conversation, but it cannot yet begin to compete with a child’s ability to understand and interact with the world around her using senses such as touch, sight and smell.

As technology that uses AI gets smarter, we want to ensure that we take a responsible approach to our progress — and one that will ultimately provide the most benefit to our customers and to society as a whole, as captured in the AI principles and goals Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella unveiled last year.

This is uncharted territory, and we recognize that the decisions we make will have profound implications.

Last September, we announced the creation of Microsoft AI and Research, a new group that brings together approximately 7,500 computer scientists, researchers and engineers from the company’s research labs and product groups such as Bing, Cortana and Azure Machine Learning.

Today at an AI event in London held, in part, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Microsoft’s Cambridge, U.K., research lab, we talked publicly for the first time about Microsoft Research AI, a research and incubation hub within our research organization that is focused on solving some of AI’s most difficult challenges. The team of scientists and engineers will work closely with colleagues across Microsoft’s research labs and product groups. The group will tackle some of the hardest problems in AI and accelerate the integration of the latest AI advances into products and services that benefit customers and society.

Another core goal of Microsoft Research AI is to reunite AI research endeavors such as machine learning, perception and natural language processing that have evolved over time into separate fields of research. This integrated approach will allow us to develop sophisticated understandings and tools that can help people do complex, multifaceted tasks. For example, using this approach we can create methods and systems that understand language and take action based on that understanding.

Take machine reading. It’s an emerging field that has incredible potential for situations such helping a doctor quickly find important information amid thousands of documents, saving time for higher-value and potentially life-saving work.

To do machine reading well requires combining AI disciplines such as natural language processing and deep learning. In fact, Microsoft’s integrated approach is currently leading a competition in the field.

Our leading work in machine reading also is an example of the progress we are making toward a broader goal we have at Microsoft: creating technology with more sophisticated and nuanced capabilities.

Every day, computers are getting better at doing individual tasks like recognizing faces in photos or words in a conversation, using functionality such as pattern recognition and classification.

We believe AI will be even more helpful when we can create tools that combine those functions and add some of the abilities that come naturally to people. That includes things like applying our knowledge of one task to another task, or having a commonsense understanding of the world around us.

The pace of AI research is moving quickly, thanks to advances in AI algorithms, the power of cloud computing and the availability of useful training data to teach AI systems.

We can’t – and don’t want to – put the brakes on this speed of progress, but we do want to make sure we are advancing our AI efforts in a responsible way.

The advances we are making in AI won’t happen just at one company, or thanks to one computer scientist, and they won’t happen responsibly without a strong community working together. That’s why Microsoft is an active participant in organizations such as the Partnership on AI to Support People and Society. It’s also why Microsoft researchers regularly collaborate with computer science scholars and experts in other areas, from academia and other institutions.

As AI moves from research to product, we are maintaining our commitment to foundational, open and collaborative research and our dedication to solving society’s toughest problems in partnership with all members of society. We’re doubling down on research as we pursue our mission of empowering every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.

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