Microsoft Summit Addresses AI in a Time of Upheaval

Guests from Microsoft as well as other private- and public-sector speakers advocated for data-driven organization, inclusive development and thoughtful implementation in a variety of contexts.

by / June 24, 2020
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Cognizant of a technological sea change underway in the private and public sectors, and accelerated by COVID-19, Microsoft hosted a virtual summit June 23 on artificial intelligence.

Eight guests included five experts from the tech company as well as the research firm CCS Insight, The Kroger Co. and Snohomish County, Wash., which recently used AI to create chatbots to disseminate critical information.

Microsoft U.S. Chief Digital Officer Jacky Wright started the event by talking about why AI is becoming so important for large organizations. She said it comes down to the power of data, for two broad purposes: to accumulate and share new knowledge, and to solve problems.

She polled an audience of industry officials about the top barriers to their AI adoption strategies, and the No. 1 answer was “defining the AI strategy.”

As Wright repeatedly stressed, “now is the time.”

“We are in an inflection point in our society. We have a pandemic, we have an economic slump, and we have unrest due to racial, social inequities and disparities,” she said. “Think about how we can use the power of data to focus on these three things, where we’re going to transform who we are in today’s society, and that transformation hinges on our ability to understand where we are right now, what we need to do in the future, and the effects of that.”

Mitra Azizirad, Microsoft’s corporate VP of AI and innovation, followed by talking about what it means to become an AI-powered organization, and what a difference that can make. She said most development involving AI has focused on three scenarios: business optimization, such as real-time monitoring, detecting anomalies in products, and other data-driven insights; helping with employee productivity by giving them better tools and more time for more skills-focused jobs instead of administrative tasks; and customer service, by anticipating and proactively addressing people’s needs.

Azizirad defined an AI-powered organization as one with a culture that’s data-driven, inclusive of different backgrounds and perspectives, committed to responsible use of new technology, and leveraging AI for everyone and not just those with technical expertise. The latter point was a common refrain among guests at the summit.

“Putting AI into action is the most effective and life-changing when you strategically scale its impact across the entire business,” Azizirad said. “To do this, it requires a mindset that embraces this idea that AI can fundamentally change what’s possible for you to achieve with your employees and your organization.”

From CCS Insight, Head of Enterprise Research Nick McQuire listed his own three recommendations for an agency’s success with AI: a data-driven culture involving business metrics and measuring success, a holistic look at the entire organization and every employee, and having a strategic adviser or trusted partner to help the organization understand the technology’s potential and best practices.

McQuire again stressed the need to put AI into the hands of every employee in every business function, so everyone can collaborate and offer the widest possible range of input. As one speaker put it: “How do we make sure this isn’t a forced march toward something they don’t understand?”

Tom Lawry, Microsoft’s national director for AI, health and life sciences, described at length the potential of AI in the health-care space. Among other things, he advocated for large organizations setting up a modern data estate involving all the data they own, control, manage or use, regardless of where it’s stored. He said this allows organizations to better maintain it and make decisions on an agile basis. He pointed out that it may also be necessary because of the speed at which new data is being generated.

Lawry discussed an organizational culture and a mindset, not just technology.

“Many organizations are starting, but they’re early in the journey. What we’re seeing in that AI-powered world in health care is, many organizations moving away from the traditional provision of services, and towards the use of AI to create what’s coming to be known as intelligent health systems,” he said. “Intelligent health systems leverage data and AI to create strategic advantage, and they do that by making services more efficient. They also do that, not just in a little area or two, but they really focus on making things better across all touchpoints, all experiences, and all channels that a consumer may turn to when it comes to a health care need.”

On the subject of managing emerging technology in a fair and equitable way, Microsoft Chief Responsible AI Officer Natasha Crampton mentioned “fairness and inclusiveness” as concerns that keep her up at night. She said sources of unfairness in AI are many and complex, but she offered tips to mitigate: strive to have a diverse team working on building the technologies, think deeply about the context in which a system will be used, and be thoughtful and carefully curate data sets to test and train models.

“Start with principles. You need a north star to keep coming back to, and starting with a set of principles is how you do that, making sure that they’re aligned with the values of your organization,” she said. “Move to practices … and figure out what tangible steps you can take in order to advance those ends in your organization.”

Microsoft’s summit wrapped up with a government official from Snohomish County, Wash., Kendee Yamaguchi, executive director of trade and economic development. She said when her county verified the first reported case of COVID-19 in the U.S., they knew they needed to put out critical information as soon as possible. Within 24 hours, the county had set up Microsoft AI-powered chatbots to answer the public’s questions, including a Spanish-language option.

And it wasn’t an anomaly. Azizirad had mentioned earlier in the talk that since March, public service and health organizations have created more than 1,200 bots.

In a nutshell, Yamaguchi said information is power, and AI helps governments prepare for the future.

“In government, we aren’t often known for innovation, but even before COVID-19, Snohomish County was engaged in change, and this pandemic provided an opportunity for us to transform how we do business more quickly. Now our default is working from home, like many of you, and being in government, having the same tools that our business partners have helps us stay engaged and have strong communication.”

As an aside, Yamaguchi touched on the value of public-private partnerships. She said food producers in eastern Washington recently contacted the county because they had a large volume of produce that was going to spoil. The county sent public works trucks to pick it up, and the produce wound up at food banks instead of the dump.

“This is just one illustrative example of the hundreds that are happening every day,” she said.

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Andrew Westrope Staff Writer

Andrew Westrope is a staff writer for Government Technology. Before that, he was a reporter and editor at community newspapers for seven years. He has a Bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.


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