Tag Archives: Microsoft

Har Gobind Khorana receiving NIH lecture award. (Image from the NIH)

Innovative Americans: South Asian Contributions

This article is intended as an appreciation and a tribute to America, our adopted country, for its unusual penchant for inventions and innovations which have left a deep impact worldwide and for the future.

I was suddenly given to ponder over which peoples’ innovations, thinking outside the box, had the greatest impact the world over and were most unique. I quickly realized that history is in the eyes of the beholder. 

To the ‘sophisticated’ among us, usually drenched in the Eurocentric classics, the world’s progress seems to have been greatly stunted after Greece and Rome.

Then there are the Anglophiles who think everything significant started in England: the parliamentary system running parallel with royalty, the English language which ‘civilized’ the world from Africa to India to the Americas to the computers, the steam engine, the railways, and the judicial system (innocent until proven guilty!). They also gave us cricket and possibly football (soccer) and tennis. Of course, they also invented color prejudice. 

The Chinese gave us paper, gunpowder, and noodles.

And we, Indians, did not stop after the Vedas. We gave the world Yoga and the all-important ‘zero’. If you are of the Hindutva bent of mind, you surely like to think Indians were into aviation and guided missiles several millennia before the Wright Brothers – our Puranas say so. Of course, Indians were pioneers in plastic surgery, as proudly proclaimed by our beloved PM Modi in a session of the Indian Science Congress, citing the example of Lord Ganesh’s replaced elephant head.

But to me, all this pales in comparison to the acumen for inventions and innovations of the Americans – ushering in a paradigm shift in the world we live in today. All this happened, more or less, within the last one hundred and fifty years or so. Americans’ penchant for inventions seems to defy all boundaries starting from Edison’s light bulb to the gramophone, airplanes, telephone, television, computers, and IT. The present addiction to the small screen seems to have originated in America. So also for the most part, big screen a la Hollywood was America’s gift to the world. And who else would have thought of a 102-story building all the way back in 1934? Or a glitzy gambling mecca in Las Vegas?  

Edison and his phonograph

Henry Ford and his Ford Motor Company gave the world the concept of assembly–line manufacturing.  The result was the vision of a car for every family, which revolutionized our ideas of travel and transportation and ushered in the Automobile Age. The Automobile Age provided the inspiration for the development of high-speed motor travel along with a web of freeways for hundreds of miles, complete with road signs, motels, gas stations and, let us not forget, highway patrols.  

The computers and the revolution in communications and information technology are examples of American innovativeness – from the early days of Hollerith and card punching systems to the development of the microchip capable of storing tons of data in a thimble. Starting with the iconic IBM, American companies like Hewlett Packard and Microsoft have become household names. Developments seem to come by leaps and bounds, branching off in different directions from computers with immense computing power and the ability to store humongous quantities of information to small chips ushering in convenient desktops and laptops. 

Thanks to Google and other search engines, we have all the information we need with a click of a button, allowing us to dispense with big libraries and stacks of books and other documents. Word processing has spelled a death knell on the typists but opened up much for the rest of us. Everyone seems to have a little cell phone these days, even little kids and texting has become so common. Letter writing has given way to e-mail. 

Yahoo, Facebook, and Twitter have become household names and have caused quite a dent in our daily lives.  Now we can order groceries and other merchandise through the computers and get delivered at our doorsteps. We were afforded added admiration for these developments in the recent lockdown for Covid-19 which has been with us for over a year now. Thanks to all the developments many could work on the computers from home avoiding a major calamity all over. One dreads to think where we would have been if the Covid-19 hit us twenty years earlier when much of these developments were not yet in place. Incidentally, the huge presence of persons of subcontinental origin in computer, information technology, and related industries cannot be missed. Many have made huge contributions in the field. And some have made it to the highest levels like Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft and Arvind Krishna, the new CEO of IBM.

Sundar Pichai in Vietnam (Image by Nguyen Hung Vu under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

American universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, Columbia have been fountainheads of innovative thinking and have been at the forefront of pathbreaking research and developments. America outstrips all other nations by a huge margin when it comes to the number of Nobel Prize winners. Nobel Laureates of Indian origin, Har Gobind Khorana (Medicine), Subramanya Chandrasekhar (Physics), Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (Chemistry), and Abhijit Banerjee (Economics) all did a major portion of their work while in this country and were US citizens. Bangladeshi economist Muhammed Yunus, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize also did a major part of his work in the US.

Americans, I am sure, were the first to think of fast foods and franchises – MacDonald’s was such a seminal idea followed by other icons like Burger King and KFC. And who else could have thought of exploiting a commercial angle to amour and bring about Valentine’s day or to parental relationships, bringing about Father’s Day and Mother’s Day? Thank God (or whoever) that at least twice a year, the children are reminded of their parents. And with all that and their predilection to excessive usage of natural resources, they gave birth to the realization that our planet’s natural resources need to be protected and nurtured.  Thus was born the environmental protection laws, idea of recycling, discouraging the usage of fossil fuels and the penchant for clean air and clean water.   

And that brings me to my favorite: Sports.  Basketball and volleyball were both invented within American shores and are popular today the world over. So was baseball, their national pastime, which is slowly getting popular outside: in Japan, Korea, and Latin America. And American Football too was their invention; forget that it has some vague roots in the English game of rugby. Who else could have conceived of twenty-two huge fat men banging ‘systematically’ on each other in an effort to advance a funny-shaped ball to the end zone?  The game is interspersed with timeouts to accommodate the TV ads. But may be the biggest innovation in the game is the cheerleaders: skimpily yet colorfully dressed dancing girls dazzling the arenas and the TV screens. Many of my friends new to the country and to American Football got first attracted to the game because of these cheerleaders. And finally, how many of you are into WWF wrestling? I was once quite a fan and my young nephew in India, an otherwise intelligent man, is addicted to it. There is fighting, faking, shouting, drama – what not? It may be America’s greatest innovation of all.

Makes one really wonder what today’s world would have been like without the last one hundred and fifty years of American innovation.


Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write.


 

Count the Ticking TikToks

The summer has been eventful for ByteDance, the owner of the rapidly growing social network TikTok. First, the government of India banned the application from distribution in the country due to concerns that the Chinese government is accessing user data. Then, a number of US companies warned employees to remove TikTok from their work phones. Most recently, US President Donald J. Trump threatened to ban TikTok in the US.

Into this maelstrom has stepped Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella with an offer to purchase the US business of TikTok. Nadella has earned a reputation as a savvy operator. He has restored Microsoft’s growth with smart bets on various types of business software, and a strong push to move the users of various applications, including the company’s lucrative Office products on to the online Office 365 version. Nadella has also remade the image of the swaggering giant as a kinder, gentler, more thoughtful company.

Image of Satya Nadella by Brian Smale

Microsoft’s purchase of TikTok would be Nadella’s riskiest bet to date. If Beijing, in fact, views TikTok as a crucial asset for influencing US political and social discourse, it could attempt to put backdoors into the software and service. Microsoft would need to work hard to extricate them, and they could result in TikTok’s being shut down anyway.

Also, with TikTok, Microsoft would enter the politically fraught world of social-content moderation. Microsoft has assiduously avoided political controversy, but TikTok would inevitably force Nadella to enter that arena in one way or another. For example, critics have loudly complained that TikTok censored videos of recent Hong Kong protests, citing that as evidence of Chinese government control. One can imagine similar discontent, due to slights — real or perceived — arising among any number of causes, particularly at either extreme of the US political spectrum.

TikTok’s present valuation $5 billion has critics warning that Microsoft is about to overpay. That is one of many things that could halt the deal altogether — valuation, government intervention, and fresh revelations of spying on users being just a few.

Yet the logic of the acquisition is clear. TikTok is under threat of closure by the US federal government. It’s hard to imagine that Microsoft will pay its full valuation price. For ByteDance, this may offer a graceful exit from a business that it realizes will only create more problems. So, Nadella may be making a smart bet — one with less to lose and more to gain than others realize.

Microsoft would increase its market presence by simultaneously acquiring both a social medium and an application popular with the younger crowd. It has long pined for more of the under-25 group, and TikTok may fulfill that aspiration most clearly and cleanly. Also, TikTok, a kinder, gentler social network than Facebook and Twitter, aligns culturally with Microsoft’s carefully groomed image.

The platform is designed to encourage discovery and consumption, but not to fan the flames of extremism. That does entail algorithmically controlling content more carefully and spreading new content more slowly than Facebook and Twitter care to. To date, however, moderation has been a lesser problem on TikTok than on other platforms and, due to its design and mechanism, is likely to remain so.

With TikTok would come a large and growing pool of user-generated video data for training Microsoft’s artificial intelligence (AI) engines. In theory, if Microsoft can continue to grow TikTok’s user base, its advertising benefits to Microsoft may be enormous. Microsoft’s cash flow would benefit from the added diversity of the advertising revenue and potentially of another rapidly growing source: social advertising. To put this into perspective, Amazon’s fastest-growing revenue stream, of late, has been advertising sales on its powerful eCommerce platform.

The purchase’s major benefit to Microsoft and the US public may be the ability of US consumers to continue to use an innovative platform for free expression and creativity after rescuing it from the quicksand of politics. Yes, we must remain vigilant in limiting government spying (which, let’s be honest, both sides engage in) and restrictive business practices (in which China is clearly the worst offender). But ultimately the potential of such technology as TikTok is to soar above partisanship and divisiveness to let people connect and create.

Certainly, social networks have created their fair share of problems for society, and TikTok is not a perfect vessel. People will find ways to abuse its potential. For now, however, Microsoft’s purchase of TikTok would, in a rare win-win, benefit Microsoft, TikTok’s users, and society.

And just as the US learned from India’s ban, India now needs to learn from it. China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017 requires all of its companies and citizens to ‘support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work’. If China decided to launch more aggressive moves against India, it could have its companies intercept private communications, shut down key services, or even sabotage infrastructure. This is why the US State Department launched the Clean Network program: to purge Chinese companies from US infrastructure. This applies to telecoms carriers, cloud services, undersea cables, apps, and app stores.

Removing Chinese-developed infrastructure will take time. But India can surely take a page out of the US State Department’s book and require companies such as Xiaomi, Haier, Oppo, Vivo, Oneplus, Huawei, and Motorola to sell their Indian products to local players. Companies such as Reliance, Mahindra, and Tata have the capability and funding and could win in the same way as Microsoft.


Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow, Labour and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School, US, and co-author of the forthcoming book, From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation.

This piece was first published here.

License for embedded image can be found here.

Artificial Intelligence: Beyond the hype

To gauge by the news headlines, it would be easy to believe that artificial intelligence (AI) is about to take over the world. Kai-Fu Lee, a Chinese venture capitalist, says that AI will soon create tens of trillions of dollars of wealth and claims China and the U.S. are the two AI superpowers.

There is no doubt that AI has incredible potential. But the technology is still in its infancy; there are no AI superpowers. The race to implement AI has hardly begun, particularly in business. As well, the most advanced AI tools are open source, which means that everyone has access to them.

Tech companies are generating hype with cool demonstrations of AI, such as Google’s AlphaGo Zero, which learned one of the world’s most difficult board games in three days and could easily defeat its top-ranked players. Several companies are claiming breakthroughs with self-driving vehicles. But don’t be fooled: The games are just special cases, and the self-driving cars are still on their training wheels.

AlphaGo, the original iteration of AlphaGo Zero, developed its intelligence through use of generative adversarial networks, a technology that pits two AI systems against each another to allow them to learn from each other. The trick was that before the networks battled each other, they received a lot of coaching. And, more importantly, their problems and outcomes were well defined.

Unlike board games and arcade games, business systems don’t have defined outcomes and rules. They work with very limited datasets, often disjointed and messy. The computers also don’t do critical business analysis; it’s the job of humans to comprehend information that the systems gather and to decide what to do with it. Humans can deal with uncertainty and doubt; AI cannot. Google’s Waymo self-driving cars have collectively driven over 9 million miles, yet are nowhere near ready for release. Tesla’s Autopilot, after gathering 1.5 billion miles’ worth of data, won’t even stop at traffic lights.

Today’s AI systems do their best to reproduce the functioning of the human brain’s neural networks, but their emulations are very limited. They use a technique called deep learning: After you tell an AI exactly what you want it to learn and provide it with clearly labeled examples, it analyzes the patterns in those data and stores them for future application. The accuracy of its patterns depends on completeness of data, so the more examples you give it, the more useful it becomes.

Herein lies a problem, though: An AI is only as good as the data it receives, and is able to interpret them only within the narrow confines of the supplied context. It doesn’t “understand” what it has analyzed, so it is unable to apply its analysis to scenarios in other contexts. And it can’t distinguish causation from correlation.

The larger issue with this form of AI is that what it has learned remains a mystery: a set of indefinable responses to data. Once a neural network has been trained, not even its designer knows exactly how it is doing what it does. They call this the black box of AI.

Businesses can’t afford to have their systems making unexplained decisions, as they have regulatory requirements and reputational concerns and must be able to understand, explain, and prove the logic behind every decision that they make.

Then there is the issue of reliability. Airlines are installing AI-based facial-recognition systems and China is basing its national surveillance systems on such systems. AI is being used for marketing and credit analysis and to control cars, drones, and robots. It is being trained to perform medical data analysis and assist or replace human doctors. The problem is that, in all such uses, AI can be fooled.

Google published a paper last December that showed that it could trick AI systems into recognizing a banana as a toaster. Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science have just demonstrated that they could confuse almost any AI system without even using, as Google did, knowledge of what the system has used as a basis for learning. With AI, security and privacy are an afterthought, just as they were early in the development of computers and the Internet.

Leading AI companies have handed over the keys to their kingdoms by making their tools open source. Software used to be considered a trade secret, but developers realized that having others look at and build on their code could lead to great improvements in it. Microsoft, Google, and Facebook have released their AI code to the public for free to explore, adapt, and improve. China’s Baidu has also made its self-driving software, Apollo, available as open source.

Software’s real value lies in its implementation: what you do with it. Just as China built its tech companies and India created a $160 billion IT services industry on top of tools created by Silicon Valley, anyone can use openly available AI tools to build sophisticated applications. Innovation has now globalized, creating a level playing field—especially in AI.


Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering. He is the co-author of Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain—and How to Fight Back.

This article first appeared in Fortune magazine.

 

satya nadella

Satya Nadella: “The moment that forever changed our lives.”

Today, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella shares his personal journey with accessibility with an essay on LinkedIn. 


I remember the year 1996 as a thrilling time. My wife, Anu, was 25 and I was 29. My career as an engineer was taking off, while she was building her career as an architect. We were far from our families in India, but settling into our new life together in the Seattle area. Even more exciting, however, was that Anu was pregnant with our first child. In the apartment we were renting next to the Microsoft campus, we spent months busily preparing for his arrival – — decorating a nursery, putting plans in place for Anu to return to her career, envisioning how our weekends and holidays would change …. We were ready to add a new joy to our life.

But then our plans changed.

One night, during the thirty-sixth week of her pregnancy, Anu noticed that the baby was not moving as much as she was accustomed to. So we went to the emergency room of a local hospital in Bellevue. We thought it would be just a routine checkup, little more than new parent anxiety. In fact, I distinctly remember feeling annoyed by the wait times we experienced in the emergency room. But upon examination, the doctors were alarmed enough to order an emergency cesarean section. Zain was born at 11:29 p.m. on August 13, 1996, all of three pounds. He did not cry.

Zain was transported from the hospital in Bellevue across Lake Washington to Seattle Children’s Hospital with its state- of- the- art Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Anu began her recovery from the difficult birth. I spent the night with her in the hospital and immediately went to see Zain the next morning. Little did I know then how profoundly our lives would change. Over the course of the next couple of years we learned more about the damage caused by in utero asphyxiation, and how Zain would require a wheelchair and be reliant on us because of severe cerebral palsy. I was devastated. But mostly I was sad for how things turned out for me and Anu.

(Excerpt from his book, Hit Refresh.) 

To say that period of time was difficult is an understatement. One of the things I remember most clearly, however, is how Anu’s reaction to Zain’s birth was immediately so different from mine. For Anu, it was never about what this meant for her — it was always about what it meant for Zain and how we could best care for him. Rather than asking “why us?” she instinctually felt his pain before her own.

Watching her in those first few days, weeks and beyond taught me a lot. Over time, Anu helped me understand that nothing had happened to me or to her, but something had happened to Zain. As his parents, it was up to us not to question “why,” but instead to do everything we could to improve his life. Anu is an amazing woman, mother and partner. Her empathy for others runs deep, and from her I have learned the power of infusing empathy into my everyday actions, whether they be in my role as a father or as a CEO. She inspires me with her willingness to share more about her journey as a mom in the hope it can help others.

Becoming a father of a son with special needs was the turning point in my life that has shaped who I am today. It has helped me better understand the journey of people with disabilities. It has shaped my personal passion for and philosophy of connecting new ideas to empathy for others. And it is why I am deeply committed to pushing the bounds on what love and compassion combined with human ingenuity and passion to have impact can accomplish with my colleagues at Microsoft.

It is fitting that the theme of this year’s U.S. National Disability Employment Awareness Month — recognized every October — is “Inclusion drives innovation.” We could not agree more. At Microsoft, we are making accessibility a top priority in our product development efforts, from core features in Windows 10 like Narrator to pushing the boundaries of what’s possible through innovations like Hearing AI created by Azure engineer Swetha Machanavajhala. In addition, we know that having an employee base that is representative of all backgrounds and abilities is one of our greatest strengths. This is why we continue to be passionate about hiring people with disabilities through initiatives like the Autism Hiring Program and Supported Employment Program, which help us advance our mission to empower every person on the planet — including more than 1 billion people who have disabilities.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUAsU_zQVMo?feature=oembed]

An audio descriptive version of the Autism Hiring Video available.

I am an optimist who firmly believes that at its most powerful, technology can contribute to incredible human capability and insight. I also believe it can help people find immense joy and a deeper connection to the world around them by enabling them to realize their professional and personal potentials. Some of my favorite examples of technology in action are where people have come together from across Microsoft, united by a shared passion to hack and build solutions that have the potential to benefit millions:

  • Eye Control: The new Eye Control feature in Windows 10 began as a passion project from our first and now annual OneWeek Hackathon. Inspired by a challenge from former NFL player Steve Gleason in 2014, who has a neuromuscular disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the hackathon team produced the first Eye Gaze Wheelchair, which allowed Steve to drive his wheelchair with only the movement of his eyes as he looked at controls on his Surface. Fast-forward three years, thanks to the work of many across the company, Eye Control now makes Windows 10 more accessible by empowering people with disabilities to operate an onscreen mouse, keyboard and text-to-speech experience using only their eyes and a compatible eye tracker like the Tobii 4C. Even better, this was one of several new accessibility features announced this week by the Windows team as part of the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update.

An audio descriptive version of the Eye Control video available.

  • Seeing AI: Recently, one of my colleagues, Angela Mills, shared her personal story with me. Angela is visually impaired — having lost her central vision when she was a child, today she has only her peripheral vision. Over the years, she has used various technologies to assist her daily activities, but she calls the early release of the new Seeing AI app “life-changing.” Before, when she went into a cafeteria for lunch, she would have to find a cafeteria worker and ask for help picking out a salad. Now, she can go to the salad area and use the app on her phone to read the labels of the salads before choosing one by herself. She can walk confidently into a conference room, knowing for sure she’s in the right place with the right people; and when she’s cooking at home, she doesn’t have to rely on her husband to read out the labels on the spice jars. It’s incredible to see how this idea that was sparked and developed at our annual hackathon by Saqib Shaikh, Anirudh Koul and team, is now a free application that enables Angela and many others to feel more included and connected to the world around them, and we can’t wait to bring it to more folks around the world in weeks and months to come.
  • Learning Tools: Another Hackathon project brought an incredible team of individuals together from across Microsoft in the U.S. and Canada to focus on technology for children with dyslexia. The team leveraged complex academic research on reading rates and translated it into technology, and built a simple set of experiences with big impact.  The Office and Windows teams embraced the thinking and Learning Tools in addition to being an add-in for OneNote, is now built into Word and Outlook online and Microsoft Edge. Learning Tools was initially designed to improve the reading and writing experience for dyslexic students. But by leveraging a variety of existing technologies like Bing’s speech recognition, simultaneous audio text playback and natural language processing, it actually makes reading and writing more accessible to all students. What I especially love is that it is truly an example of inclusive design — a one-size-fits-all solution that can work for a full spectrum of diverse users.

An audio descriptive version of the Learning Tools video is available.

These are just a few examples of the power of inclusive design — it goes beyond any one product or feature. Inclusive teams that propagate and advance inclusive principles will have the deepest impact in building products designed for everyone. Consider that at some point in our lives, each of us may rely on assistive technologies.

Our work in accessibility has an incredibly deep meaning to me personally. Our family’s experience has required me to continually hit refresh on my emotions and on my outlook, and it is in this constant quest for renewal that I realize — despite the fact we are making progress — we still have much to do, quickly, for so many.

But Zain reminds me that we can get there. He is the joy of our family, whose strength and warmth both inspire and motivate me to keep pushing the boundaries of what technology can do. And I’ve found that the moments that so deeply change our lives can also be a catalyst to empower those around us. This is what I see in the scores of passionate people at Microsoft. My hope is that we can collectively work together to amplify this across the planet.

This article by Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, originally appeared on his LinkedIn.