Microsoft artificial intelligence- Rico Malvar, Microsoft’s chief scientist, leaves no room for doubt about the importance of artificial intelligence to the tech giant.
“It’s almost like electricity,” he says during a session at the Microsoft Research facility at he company’s sprawling campus in Redmond, outside Seattle.
But where many think of AI as creating machines that can think and even feel for themselves, the Microsoft view is that AI needs to be included – or in Microsoft speak, “infused” – in everything, from a simple word processor to a quantum computer.
It is, in a way, AI writ small.
While Microsoft is working on its share of AI moonshots – perhaps most notably an AI-powered project that is trying to develop a universal blood test that would screen for a huge range of diseases – the company’s focus on enterprise and personal productivity that has been set by chief executive Satya Nadella means the company is pushing AI right down to its standard consumer products too.
So users of slide-show maker Powerpoint can, for example, connect to the cloud, sketch out their slide with an electronic pen and then choose from several suggestions as to how their slides could be set out.
Then, when they give their presentation, they can provide a real-time transcription in their native language, or display subtitles and deliver audio in another language.
Microsoft Word users can tap into a cloud-based text editor that learns their writing style. And Excel users can have huge tables of data automatically analysed, such that outliers and anomalies are instantly found.
It might not be world-changing, but Malvar emphasises two points.
Firstly, while we are already taking some of these applications almost for granted, the technology behind them has only reached human-like levels very recently.
For example, it was only in 2016 that a computer was able to achieve the same accuracy as human in recognising images. A year later, a machine was able to recognise speech with a human-like error rate. In 2018, AI matched a human’s accuracy in reading comprehension.