Since its launch as a business decades ago, Microsoft has built its reputation on releasing innovative computing solutions. In the past couple of years, the company has undergone an even more significant change, as announced by CEO Satya Nadella at the 2019 Ignite event, when he claimed the company’s goal was to commoditise digital technology and ensure all businesses had the capabilities to become digital companies.
Carel du Toit, CEO of Mint Group
With this in mind, Carel du Toit, CEO of Mint Group, explains his organisation has distilled the five most crucial things it has learned from Microsoft in the past year, as the company not only welcomes the rapid changes that technology is inculcating across the board, but is also eager to reap the benefits of the vendor’s innovation.
“The first discussion raised by Microsoft is that of democratising artificial intelligence (AI), in the sense that it is important to make AI both available and understandable to everyone, to deliver it at low cost and to leverage it to drive a specific outcome,” he says.
“The key here lies in educating people around the impact that AI will have on their jobs. Remember that it should create, rather than eliminate, jobs; however, it will lead to people being shifted into new lines of work, as well as most likely leading to the creation of entirely new industries. Commoditisation is vital because of the fundamental impact it can have on key issues like crime, safety, healthcare and education.”
He points to an example of how Mint has used it to improve access control at a local university, since AI – when applied to facial recognition – improves the quality of access control far more than palm or fingerprint readers can. Moreover, it can offer far more than mere access control, as being able to identify students in this manner means it can even assist users with things like being able to find the quickest route to class, or identifying where people are in an emergency.
“We now believe so strongly in democratisation that we will not even take on a client’s project unless they are digitally enabled and both buy in to the technology itself, as well as understand its potential impacts and benefits.
“Staying with AI, the nature of the technology and the fact that it is such a huge disruptor is such that, while its introduction should be seen as a force for good, without the necessary care, it can quite easily become the opposite. It is for this reason that we subscribe to ‘AI for good’, which is a concept specifically focused on enabling good AI policy and ensuring the wrong boundaries are not crossed.”
Du Toit explains that ‘AI for good’ is all about ethics and building safeguards into the system to quickly pick up potentially unethical behaviour. He adds that being AI, it is already under heavy scrutiny, so it is crucial to strike the right balance in determining exactly what AI should and should not be used to solve.
“Remember that AI itself remains reliant on humans – we provide the parameters the technology uses, after all. A good example of how ethics comes into the AI argument is that of an AI-controlled self-driving car. In a situation where the machine has to decide whether to risk the life of the driver or the lives of two pedestrians, the real question has to be who decides on the parameters it uses to make such a decision, and who is ultimately liable for the accident? After all, if the AI is driving, wouldn’t the person who programmed it bear ultimate responsibility?
“Microsoft has also highlighted the potential impact of virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) across a wide range of industries. AR, of course, offers enormous potential for sectors as varied as retail, construction, healthcare and education. One only has to think about something like an interior designer, using AR to walk a client through the actual building, while showing exactly what would be changed and how. This kind of augmentation will definitely have many future positive impacts, and is thus certainly worth studying.
“The fourth lesson learned is the benefit of using Office 365 Teamwork to significantly improve collaboration within the business. Teamwork helps to eliminate the silos that often hinder effective co-operation, by enabling users to more effectively track collaboration and interactions. What is important is that the ease with which it virtually brings together teams and resources, all in one place, regardless of the physical distance between them, fosters a far greater magnitude of productivity.”
This, continues Du Toit, segues nicely into the fifth key learning, which is the importance Microsoft is now placing on ‘solutions’, rather than ‘technologies’.
“In the past, a technology was provided, along with a licence, to a multitude of customers, to use as they saw fit. However, in today’s world, it is far more important to be able to solve a customer’s specific challenge, and this can only be done by tailoring various technologies into a solution customised to meet their individual needs.”
“To this end, we – like Microsoft – are now intently focused on leading from the front, by evolving into a more agile, efficient and innovative business; one that focuses is on building the right solutions for our customers, so as to ensure that they are ready not only for the present, but also for the future,” he concludes.