National Technology Officer, Microsoft Canada
AI is already changing the world dramatically. It’s up to us to ensure that those changes benefit everyone on the planet — and that they benefit the planet itself.
As the information age flourishes into an era of ubiquitous AI, the potential for transformative technological change is boundless. We’re looking at a shift as profound as the Industrial Revolution, with human capabilities augmented by increasingly more intelligent machines. We live in a world that is being reinvented, and so a great responsibility rests on the shoulders of the inventors.
Artificial intelligence — the ability of machines to learn, reason, and react in ways that are similar to humans — is not new. The earliest AI systems were created decades ago, and they’ve been iterated and innovated upon ever since. Today, however, a confluence of factors (faster computing, widespread interconnectivity, and the availability of enormous datasets for training) is creating an environment where AI can truly thrive.
A huge opportunity — but for whom?
AI is shaping up to be the defining technology of our time and the transformation has already begun. There are a lot of big questions. Perhaps the biggest of all is: who benefits?
“As AI systems get more sophisticated and start to play a larger role in people’s lives, we must ensure the technology we create benefits everyone on the planet, as well as the planet itself,” says John Weigelt, National Technology Officer at Microsoft Canada. “There’s a huge opportunity to leverage AI for social good, to empower others in new and more impactful ways to help create a more sustainable, inclusive, and accessible world. A fundamental aspect of our AI for Good initiative is pairing the adoption of trusted best-in-class AI technology with dedicated groups from around the world to help solve some of the most challenging societal issues.”
As established leaders in the AI space, Microsoft has a solemn understanding of the responsibility shouldered by trailblazers. Across its five AI for Good initiatives — AI for Earth, AI for Accessibility, AI for Humanitarian Action, AI for Cultural Heritage, and AI for Health — it has invested $165 million over the course of five years, with the hopes that this investment will reverberate and expand into new initiatives and new investments.
There’s a huge opportunity to leverage AI for social good, to empower others in new and more impactful ways to help create a more sustainable, inclusive, and accessible world.
Business is just the beginning
So often we think of artificial intelligence as a tool of business, something to be used in pursuit of cost efficiency or marketing efficacy. But these same technologies are also compiling and preserving historical artifacts. They’re equally as effective at optimizing the distribution of aid in volatile areas of the world. And they’re indispensable in the creation of accurate and informative climate change models. The applications are endless and each one is a unique microcosm of the power and adaptability of AI.
In Northern Canada, Microsoft is working with the Government of Nunavut to preserve Indigenous languages and has added the Inuktitut text translation to Microsoft Translator. This addition will allow users to translate any of the more than 70 languages to or from Inuktitut, the primary dialect of the Inuktut language.
In British Columbia, BC Cancer is using machine learning to gather data on specific cancer types for drug pairings. “This highly effective method creates a lot of data,” explains Weigelt. “Recently, the lab moved most of its genome database to Microsoft Azure to gain the computational power, security, and compliance it needed to process the valuable data that will lead to cancer treatments and breakthroughs.”
Meanwhile, the City of Calgary and Evergreen are piloting AI for the Resilient City, an AI data visualization tool to help municipalities evaluate infrastructure for climate resiliency and mitigating the impacts of climate change. “One of the largest untapped potentials of AI is sustainability,” says Weigelt. “We know AI and the power of cloud computing will be key to reversing the impacts of climate change as they enable innovators to collect, process, and analyze data at a scale and speed that was previously unimaginable. This enables innovations like the Planetary Computer, a project that provides access to trillions of data points to the world to better understand the challenges faced in planetary health.”
And in Quebec, the City of Laval is transforming its 311 non-emergency response system with an AI virtual agent that’s expediting citizen-agent interactions and answering the more basic inquiries on its own. “By eliminating the clerical task of entering the request in the system, the virtual agent is reducing wait times,” says Weigelt. “It’s also allowing city employees to respond to complex requests sooner.”
Empower and augment
When innovation happens responsibly, as it is here, we don’t need to be afraid that AI will replace us. It can, instead, make us better. “At Microsoft, we’re focused on responsibly creating AI that will augment the workforce,” says Weigelt. “We view AI as a tool that will enable people to achieve greater productivity and growth — not stifle it. Advancements in AI will create new jobs that didn’t exist before, or that we didn’t even imagine could exist.”
The world today is facing incredible challenges, too large for any one individual, organization, or even nation to tackle alone. At the same time, we’re faced with a digital revolution poised to facilitate achievement and collaboration on an incredible scale. So, as we’re imagining the world transformed by artificial intelligence, let us have the courage to imagine it better. We’re on the cusp of an entirely new way of working, living, and being, empowered by technologies that can bring us together and make us more than we ever were before. The lengths of what we can achieve through this transfiguration are limited only by the standards to which we hold those leading the way.