The rise of the bots is one takeaway message from this morning's Build 2016 keynote. But that's really not a surprise if you've been paying attention to Microsoft for the past few years -- the company's made no secret about its belief in machine learning and its quest to automate sequential, information-rich tasks. The real surprise of the keynote was how much of it was focused on a message that technology is a social issue.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella set the terms for the keynote's subsequent two hours with "There is a much more mainstream dialougue to have about the role of role of technology in our society, and it is the right time to have it, because tech is so mainstream. It is embedded in our industries and in our economies."
Granted, he could have been referencing one of Microsoft's product perks -- much was made through the keynote about how Microsoft's various products work with each other and how easy it is to make them all play together nicely.
However, Nadella's message comes at the end of an eventful few months in which Apple CEO Tim Cook articulated his company's position on the role of businesses as they relate to customers' privacy and to the health of the planet, and it comes at the end of a few weeks in which Microsoft discovered how quickly people can corrupt an AI experiment, while also grappling with the collision of gaming culture and their own inclusion mission at GDC. The people who steer some of the biggest companies in tech are studying how their companies shape -- or are shaped -- by the societies around them.
The bigger message here? Microsoft's not content to merely make technology. The company wants you to think about how you're using it too.
Or, as Nadella said, "We have to make choices how we go about building technology. We need to make design choices, economic choices and social choices, so the way we use technology helps us progress as a society."
Later in the keynote, when talking about machine learning, Nadella did reference the Tay debacle and noted that similar experiments that were not based in the U.S. had considerably different outcomes. The Microsoft team would be studying why that was the case.
He went on to note that Microsoft views the relationship between human intelligence and machine intelligence as complementary: Humans bring creativity and contextual judgment to the partnership, while machine intelligence brings raw computational speed and associative information processing.
Throughout the year, expect Microsoft's public statements and product launches to continue to appeal to the better angels of human nature. Nadella is right in that society is primed for a conversation about the role of technology in the creative and commercial fabrics of our lives. The question now is whether or not we'll be having the chat on Microsoft's terms.