#FutureDecoded Dreaming of Electric Employees

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If you believed that terms such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and digital transformation were the stuff of science fiction, then other sections of IT are proving that this is the new reality.

This week I attended the “business day” of Microsoft’s Future Decoded conference in London, a rare opportunity for me to take a step away from a pure security theme into one of digital transformation, where Microsoft was at the centre of it.

The agenda took in many aspect of AI and how this can both enable business, and bring about what described by Microsoft’s speakers as “the fourth industrial revolution”. This is described as “the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies” and “includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of things and cloud computing”. The Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud are not new to security types, but perhaps in five years the concept of AI will be as present in the ‘do we accept it as the new normal or not’.

Ultimately now, humans are teaching computers how to reason, think, learn, plan, judge and speak. In several demonstrations the concept of AI was delivered, with Ryan Asdourian, UK director for Windows and Devices, using the Cortana digital agent to recommend local restaurants and demographics of the audience.

Asdourian said: “We are here today to explore change. We need to be ready to embrace digital transformation.

“People think that digital transformation is just about technology, but the reality is that digital transformation was years ago [and] is now par for the course. It’s more strategic, it’s more fundamental.”

Also speaking from Microsoft was UK CEO Cindy Rose, herself only a few months in at the company, who said that Microsoft was “not immune from the changes”. With cloud computing and the advent of AI, Microsoft was seeking to not only embrace, but lead the waves of change for customers to take advantage of opportunities that the technologies offer.

“Digital business embraces technology to effective engage employees, optimise operations and transform products and services to cause disruption to technology,” she said.

Rose also asked the ethical question of what the introduction of bots will mean for jobs, privacy, income equality, and she said that it was urgent that these questions are addressed in order to determine the benefits of change and avoid the pitfalls.

The most common use of AI within Microsoft seemed to be within helpdesk agents for customers, which Microsoft Cambridge scientist and lab director Chris Bishop demonstrated. The artificial intelligence can carry the customer based on keywords and with multi-lingual support, Bishop said that the Microsoft approach was “built on a mission to empower organizations and person to achieve more”.

The three ambitions he revealed are not about replacing people with machines, but empowering people to do more with their businesses, and were detailed as being: reinvent productivity and business processes; create more personal computing; and build the intelligent cloud platform.

“AI should augment, be trustworthy, and inclusive and respectful,” he said. In a series of demonstrations, it was demonstrated how cloud, AI and machine learning was enabling the likes of the RAC in enabling customers to alert a breakdown, and radiotherapy where the intention is not to replace a doctor or radiologist, but use the capabilities of machines to determine the side of a tumour or location of a kidney, be complimentary to the capabilities of people, and plan treatments in a qualitative sense.

It was with presentations like this that the reality of AI demonstrated its worth; it’s not about computers operating on humans in some sort of science fiction horror nightmare, it is about time-saving and using machines to get several steps ahead.

Toni Townes Whitely, corporate vice president for the worldwide public sector at Microsoft, said that "cloud is the engine and data is the fuel for the fourth industrial revolution", and with “every industry transforming”, the challenge was how to engage with customers, change employee productivity, modernize infrastructure and move from a realm of fear to transparency.

The need for transparency over fear was one of the key themes of the presentation by Ian Levy from the National Cyber Security Centre, who said that deliverable metrics were needed to demonstrate evidence to the public.

Concluding the morning was Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, who talked up his role and interest in the UK technology industry, as he said “the tech industry is the future of the British economy”. He said he believed that Britain can be at the cutting edge of technological innovation, with a history from Alan Turing to Cambridge Consultants, to the home of the largest data centre in Europe and the home of E-commerce.

“The question is how do we get in front and how do we stay there, and I believe there is a once in a generation opportunity for the UK to cement our role in digital tech innovation, and to future-proof the economy of post-Brexit Britain, and we need to take that opportunity,” he said.

Hammond said that the fears that machines could replace humans “were as old as machines themselves”, and having been at my first AI and future digital event., I can see how this will become a reality. The reality is that this is something that can work, and that businesses will have to deal with.

At our upcoming conference in Boston, to be held on the 6th and 7th December, the title of the conference is “Supporting Business Transformation with Agile Cybersecurity”. The reason for this is because transformation and ability to be agile was cited as one of the most important areas for security leaders, particularly with IoT, connected devices and new compliance frameworks imposing themselves on the security industry.

The opening keynote will be delivered by Viewpost EVP Chief Security Officer & General Counsel Chris Pierson, who will particularly look at “Implementing a Dynamic Security Strategy to Support Business Innovation & Digital Transformation”, and how to add the key building blocks of an agile cybersecurity strategy that will enable business growth.

Will AI and machines be part of your transformation strategy, and have you even considered the reality of how this will be part of your job going forward? The future is happening now.

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