Microsoft’s Build Conference Hints at the Workplace of the Future

Microsoft’s Build Conference Hints at the Workplace of the Future

Build, Microsoft’s annual developer conference taking place in Seattle this week, is focusing heavily this year on AI and machine learning, and how the company plans to embed these technologies in the workplace of the near future. Wednesday’s keynote demonstrations showcased what Mark Sullivan at Fast Company calls “a vision of the workplace of the future where workers are surrounded by all manner of cameras, sensors, and other recording devices connected to internet-based AI services”:

Microsoft showed demos and videos of the “intelligent edge” in a variety of forms, in a variety of use cases, and in a variety of industries:

  • A heart patient was walking around wearing a sensor. He began to get tired, so the sensor sent that data up to the cloud for processing, and a nurse was notified to bring him a wheelchair.
  • A camera detected an employee accidentally tipping over a barrel containing a dangerous chemical, information it sent up to image-recognition software in the cloud. Some other database likely helped determine that the liquid in the barrel was hazardous. Presumably an alarm was sent to a cleanup team.
  • An employee in a shop was spotted taking a selfie while brandishing a jackhammer. The brain in the cloud recognized the employee, the activity, and the setting and concluded he was behaving recklessly, then contacted a supervisor.
  • Someone else in a shop was seen not wearing safety goggles. Alarm. Supervisor notified.

All this involves some sophisticated, on-the-fly AI. In the words of the presenter demoing the intelligent edge developer tools at Build: “The solution is running more than 27 million recognitions per second across people, objects, and activities.” But the use cases Microsoft showed onstage sound equal parts helpful and intrusive. Sure, getting a heart patient back to bed or detecting a dangerous chemical spill are health-promoting. But the notifications to the supervisor suggest a completely different, and possibly unintended, consequence of the technology.

“There is benevolent surveillance and then there is just surveillance,” Sullivan worries, “and the Microsoft technology could work in both scenarios.” But CEO Satya Nadella spent part of his time on the Build stage Wednesday dispelling the notion that Microsoft is out to turn the workplace into a surveillance state:

“What Orwell prophesied in ‘1984,’ where technology was being used to monitor, control, dictate, or what Huxley imagined we may do just by distracting ourselves without any meaning or purpose — neither of these futures is something that we want,” he said. “The future of computing is going to be defined by the choices that you as developers make and the impact of those choices on the world.”

Despite these assurances, Gizmodo reviews editor Alex Cranz came away from Wednesday’s AI monitoring demonstrations worried:

With a surveillance system like this you couldn’t invite your friend to stop by for lunch because your boss would know, a notification instantly appearing on their phone. There’d be no long lunches or grabbing extra office supplies from the closet. Take [too many] smoke breaks or have a bout of indigestion that leaves you on the toilet longer than usual? The AI would be able to notice so quickly that your boss could meet you in the hallway with a bottle of Pepto Bismol.

Cranz was also concerned by another demo from Wednesday’s keynote in which Cortana, Microsoft’s AI-enabled personal assistant bot, reminds a woman she has a meeting to get to at work, calculates that she will be late due to traffic, and notifies her workplace of her expected arrival time:

This sounds wildly cool and convenient, but there was one thing Microsoft left unsaid. This woman was logged into her home and car with her workplace ID, which means potentially her employers could now have access to data from her home and car life. If work-life balance is of any concern to you, the fact that your home speaker system might one day tell you to hurry up and get to the office because you’re late and you’re chronically late should be alarming.

The Build conference also featured some other, less revolutionary announcements about Microsoft’s latest workplace technology offerings. The company will now allow developers to publish third-party applications for Microsoft Teams, the workplace collaboration software it rolled out last November, through the Office Store, Sarah Perez reports at TechCrunch:

At the event, Microsoft also demoed a handful of Teams features, including its support for tabs, its companion mobile app, integrations with Cortana, as well as the way it’s able to work with bots and other connectors. The company’s goal with Teams is to offer its own competitor to Slack, but one that’s designed to work with Microsoft’s other applications – like Excel, Word, PowerPoint, OneNote, SharePoint and Power BI – as well as some 150 integrations with third-party services often used in a corporate environment, like those from Asana, Hootsuite, Zendesk, and more. During the demo at Build, Microsoft’s focus was on showing how all these apps – plus Cortana – could work together.