Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella addresses ethics in tech creation

Developers have the responsibility to make choices that deliver inclusivity, trust and sustainability when they build tomorrow's technologies, Nadella said, speaking at a company conference in Bengaluru on Tuesday

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Feb 26, 2020 12:20:36 PM IST
Updated: Feb 26, 2020 12:56:41 PM IST

satya nadellSatya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft Corp
Image: Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Technology creation and adoption in the coming decade will have to be drastically different from that of the past 10 years, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft Corp. told software developers at a company conference in Bengaluru on Tuesday.

Developers will have to make conscious and ethical choices in the way they build software and applications, and take into account the following factors: How to build a more inclusive society; how tech developers can ensure their products are trustworthy; and how technology creation as well as the way the tech functions ensures that no harm comes to the planet.

Nadella was speaking at the Bengaluru leg of the company’s annual ‘Future Decoded’ conference.

On the one hand, “in the past 10 years, the impact that digital technology has had has been stunning. The entire mobile revolution happened, cloud happened, consumer internet businesses got built,” Nadella said. On the other hand, “it’s been narrow in some sense,” he added. “The consumer internet reached many more people than any of us could have imagined at the beginning of the decade,” but it is yet to benefit the majority of the people on the planet, who remain poor, lack access to basic services and don’t have Internet access either.

“In the next 10 years, can we dream more. Can we even have that broad sectoral impact in an economy like India? In a society like this country, where we can think about retail to healthcare to agri-tech— everything being changed by digital technologies... I think that’s the opportunity in front of us.”

The core technology fabric is just beginning to get embedded in the world, in our homes, offices, stadiums, hospitals. Nadella spoke about how it’s in every sector of industry, including energy, retail, agriculture and financial services. From cars to refrigerators, digital technology is embedded. “Now the question is, what are we going to do about it?”

Technologists talk about this as the intelligent cloud and the intelligent edge era that comprises a ubiquity of that computing fabric that is distributed. This gives businesses and governments the ability to make intelligence ambient. It’s also helping people, for the first time, perhaps, with the ‘experience layer,’ making it much more people centric. Users aren’t tethered anymore. They don’t want to live in a world where one’s entire experience with computing is mediated by just one device. “I want it to be multiple senses, multiple devices. We are at the beginning of that.”

The goal—for companies such as Microsoft—is to help every organisation, every enterprise become a software company by adopting the latest technology: the worst mistake anyone can make is re-inventing the wheel. "You won’t be able to get the latest technology in-house. Adopt it, ride the wave and then create your own digital technology. Doesn’t matter which business you’re in.”

Software is the most malleable factor of production that humankind has ever found. The question facing people is can one take that malleability, that abundance, and create more growth and economic prosperity in society?
 
Inclusiveness, trust, sustainability
The rise of digital technologies and how businesses, governments and society at large will harness them in the future, entails responsibilities. “We all have is to think a lot more broadly about our impact,” Nadella said. “Every single developer choice, that design ethos you exhibit, the ethics of the diverse team you have are going to matter… in terms of whether we are going to create a much more inclusive world.”

The economic growth is going to happen, but the question is, are knowledge workers or frontline workers in retail, healthcare, agriculture also going to prosper, or is it going to be just a narrow sliver of society? Nadella asked.

Another factor to keep in mind is trust. Tech companies, as platform providers, are going to be the first responders and definitely have to build trust into technology. That said, every company—each bank, for instance, that enables online transactions—will have to do so too. The AI models they deploy, the core cybersecurity of their assets, their customers’ data, will have to be protected in a trustworthy way.

“Lastly, we also have to recognise that we are living in a time where sustainability of the one finite resource that we have, this planet of ours, is going to be super important.” Therefore, how can one use digital technologies to help optimise the grid, for instance? Companies such as Microsoft must make sure that they are building data centre designs that completely use renewable energy, for example. Can businesses go back to their foundations, and find ways to recapture all the carbon they have emitted, Nadella asked. “That’s the kind of responsibility we all have to exhibit.”

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