A Close Look At Microsoft's AI with Mark Chaban

Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Central & Eastern Europe, Middle East & Africa, talks to Inc. Arabia about the tech giant's AI strategy.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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In an exclusive interview with Inc. Arabia, Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Central & Eastern Europe, Middle East & Africa, Mark Chaban dives into the tech giant's AI strategy. As Microsoft shifts from AI on autopilot to AI as a copilot, Chaban tells us more about Microsoft's innovative approach to AI.

An edited transcript of our interview follows. 

A Close Look At Microsoft's AI with Mark Chaban

Inc. Arabia: Microsoft has said that when we are interacting with AI today, we have moved away from AI on autopilot to AI as a copilot. Can you explain this distinction and how it has inspired Microsoft’s most recent developments with Copilot?

Mark Chaban: Certainly, the shift from AI on autopilot to AI as a copilot represents the fundamental change in how we perceive and interact with Artificial Intelligence. Early AI systems were often described as “autopilots” since they were designed to operate independently, executing predefined tasks without much human intervention. For example, smart traffic lights that operate according to congestion on the roads and robots that help with packaging in the manufacturing sector. Today however, AI technology has evolved significantly, and we have large language models like OpenAI’s GPT-4 which have ushered in a new age of AI--an era of AI as “copilots” that complement and enhance human capabilities, rather than attempting to replace them entirely.

This shift inspired us to develop and launch Microsoft Copilot, an everyday AI companion that works everywhere you do and intelligently adapts to your needs. By incorporating the context and intelligence of the web with a user’s work data and what they are doing at that moment on their PC, Copilot can provide better assistance--with privacy and security at the forefront. We believe that there will be a Copilot for every role and function, and that is why we have been building Copilot into our most used and loved products, including Word, Outlook, Excel, Bing, and Teams. By integrating seamlessly into Microsoft 365 apps, Copilot is paving the way for enhanced productivity and creativity across an organization’s workforce.

The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), for example, has adopted Copilot to assist its software developers in building smart programs and applications that support the company’s operations. Lumen Technologies is leveraging Copilot to empower its sales teams to enhance customer experiences.

The feedback that we have received since the launch of Copilot has been very encouraging, with 70% of users saying that it helped them be more productive; 68% saying it improved the quality of their work; and an impressive 77% saying that they don’t want to give it up!

IA: Within the current AI landscape, you have stressed the importance of not only making AI easy to use but also accessible for everyone. How is Microsoft achieving this?

MC: At Microsoft, our goal has always been to democratize our breakthroughs in AI to help people and organizations be more productive and go on to solve the most pressing problems of our society. We are achieving this through a combination of our research, partnerships, and investments that are helping to deliver a wide range of AI-powered products that fit the needs of people and organizations both large and small.

Our research and development arm, Microsoft Research (MSR), has been at the forefront of discussions to enhance our collective understanding of the latest developments in AI and how they can be leveraged to benefit society. Through MSR, we regularly publish groundbreaking research on how to put AI into the hands of more people around the world.

We regularly collaborate with a wide range of organizations, including governments, non-profits, and other companies, to promote the responsible use of AI and to ensure that the benefits of the technology are shared broadly. For instance, our ongoing partnership with OpenAI is the perfect example of how we are accelerating the adoption of AI globally. The extension of our partnership last year was particularly significant as we announced the general availability of Azure OpenAI Service.

All of these developments are underpinned by our investments in our cloud footprint, the most comprehensive globally with more than 60 data center regions worldwide, including the UAE. These data centers have been key in supporting organizations as they shift to full cloud capabilities, as opposed to cloud on-premise, to accelerate their AI adoption journey. In addition, the availability of Azure OpenAI Service from our UAE datacenters in Dubai and Abu Dhabi provides organizations with access to GPT-4, Codex, DALL-E 2, and other AI models that power virtual assistants, content and code generation, image editing tools, and more.

Our commitment to empowering organizations on their cloud and AI adoption journey is further supported by our groundbreaking partnership with G42 which has made sovereign cloud offerings available in the UAE and expanded the Azure services footprint via Khazna Data Centers.

As we accelerate further into AI, we are also rethinking cloud infrastructure to ensure optimization across every layer of the hardware and software stack. We have been investing in our silicon capabilities and recently announced the launch of two custom chips Microsoft Azure Maia and Microsoft Azure Cobalt to optimize operations for large and complex AI workloads.

IA: Individuals and businesses have been integrating Large Language Models (LLMs) to create innovative new applications that are not only transforming the way we work but also how we live. Of course, this has also raised concerns about the responsible development and deployment of AI. What role does Microsoft play in this conversation?

MC: Microsoft takes a highly active and engaged role in these conversations because we firmly believe that when you create technologies that can change the world, you must also ensure that the technology is used responsibly. We have always been committed to creating responsible AI by design, and our work is guided by a core set of principles of fairness, reliability and safety, privacy and security, inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability.

We are putting these principles into practice across the company through our Responsible AI Standard, which is also publicly available for any organization looking to unlock the full potential of AI. We also provide Transparency Notes for all our AI products, and an Impact Assessments template to customers so that they have the necessary knowledge to make responsible deployment choices.

We have adopted a multi-stakeholder approach where we share our learnings and best practices with governments and policymakers and engage in regular high-level discussions to help develop responsible AI policies and guidelines. Microsoft was also one of the first major technology companies to call for thoughtful government regulation on facial recognition technology, and just last year we announced the launch of the Frontier Model Safety Forum, a new industry body with Anthropic, Google, and OpenAI that is focused on ensuring safe and responsible development of frontier AI models.

IA: Many experts have said that we have only scratched the surface of what is possible with AI, especially Generative AI. However, fully realizing its true potential requires a highly skilled talent pool. What is Microsoft doing to ensure that professionals, both within the current workforce and those that will enter the future workforce, are well prepared to work with and drive innovation in AI?

MC: With the Generative AI market projected to reach over $66 billion in 2024, and forecast to hit over $207 billion by 2030, there is absolutely no doubt that efforts to empower the present and future workforce to work alongside this technology must be accelerated. Already, research has shown that almost 25% of C-suite executives are personally using Generative AI tools for work, while 40% say that their organizations will increase their investment in AI overall because of advances in Generative AI.

To help ensure the creation of a highly skilled talent pool that will drive innovation in AI, Microsoft offers a range of training and certification programs to help professionals develop the skills they need to work with AI technologies. Our AI Skills Initiative now offers new free coursework developed with LinkedIn; including a first-of-its-kind Career Essentials Certificate in Generative AI. We are also committed to improving AI literacy through platforms such as Microsoft Learn and AI for Education which are empowering the next generation of AI innovators around the world.

We also partner with educational institutions and industry organizations around the world to empower students and professionals to deal with the opportunities and challenges of an AI-powered workforce. For example, we worked alongside the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) in Qatar to establish the Digital Center of Excellence to help bridge the digital skills gap amongst the IT community. We also collaborated with the MCIT on the Qatar National Skilling Program to equip 50,000 people with advanced digital skills, including AI. To date, more than 30,000 professionals have been trained.

Similarly, we are participating in the Jahiz National Initiative that helps government employees in the UAE build the skills necessary in technologies such as AI, and our Tomoh Program is empowering young Emiratis across the UAE with future-ready skills in cloud and AI so that they are ready to drive the next wave of the country’s digital transformation.

Also, as part of our global skilling initiative that aims to empower 25 million people worldwide with the latest digital skills, we are collaborating with INJAZ Al-Arab to enhance the digital literacy of around 200,000 youth in North African nations including Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt.

IA: Microsoft has always highlighted its commitment to promoting AI as a force for good in communities around the world. Can you provide us with examples of how this is being put into action?

MC: We believe that AI has extraordinary potential to help create solutions that will help humanity solve some of the biggest challenges that we are facing today such as climate change.

Our commitment to leveraging AI to create an equitable, sustainable, resilient, and secure future is best illustrated through the work that we are doing through our global AI for Good initiative. The initiative brings together a team of world-class data scientists from around the world to apply AI in addressing societal issues including humanitarian response, food security, and conservation. In Egypt, for example, the AI for Good Lab is assisting farmers in the country’s agricultural sector through Hudhud, an Arabic AI Farmer Virtual Assistant App, that facilitates real-time guidance and data on agricultural best practices. The app is empowering more than 50 million farmers covering 70% of farming land across the country. We are also expanding our support to farmers across the region through our FarmBeats platform which uses AI, machine learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT) to help farmers improve their productivity and reduce their costs.

Another great example is Peace Parks Foundation, a nonprofit in South Africa, that is leveraging Microsoft’s Azure AI and IoT solutions to help rangers scale their park maintenance and wildlife crime prevention work. Microsoft has partnered with Planet Labs to apply AI technology and satellite data to support African climate adaptation projects.

Meanwhile, our AI for Earth program is using AI technologies to address environmental challenges such as climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss.

Our commitment to using AI for good also extends to supporting projects that are improving the quality of life for individuals with disabilities. Towards this end, we recently launched the latest version of Seeing AI, a free app that supports blind and low-vision people with a variety of daily tasks such as reading mail, identifying everyday products, hearing descriptions of photos, and more.  

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