Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, a respected leader of one of the world's largest and most important technology companies, speaks as if humanity lives on the cusp of science-fiction. At today's Microsoft Build press conference, Nadella said of the not-so-distant-future, "It’s not going to be about man versus machine, it’s going to be about man with machines." The line addresses a sincere concern held by esteemed scientists like Stephen Hawking that artificial intelligence could one day eliminate human life.
Nadella points to Microsoft's own artificially intelligent assistant Cortana as a positive example of our early coexistence with AI. The tool follows its users across Microsoft platforms, solving problems over the course of a day. It can find the name of a store you once shopped at, name the director of a classic movie, or tell a joke.
Jokes serve a purpose for AI. "We want to build technology so it gets the best of humanity," said Nadella, "not the worst." The line got a laugh from the audience. Last week, Microsoft pulled down its Twitter chatbot Tay after it became in mere days a racist, Holocaust-denying jerk.
Beware the rogue toaster
Nadella remains hopeful about the potential of bots. "Bots," he says, "are like new applications that you converse with." He foresees a future in which communication exists between people to people, people to bots, and even "digital assistants calling on bots on your behalf."
"Human language," says Nadella, "is the new UI layer."
Nadella's focus on language and communication is based on the possibilities and anxieties around artificial intelligence. One apocalyptic theory involves artificial intelligence that takes humans commands too far, and in relentless pursuit of doing the right thing, does the wrong thing. Say, for example, a future smart-toaster is asked to make the perfect piece of toast, but in its quest, the toaster communicates through the internet with other artificial intelligence, diverting the function of computers across the world to this singular task, grinding the economy, government, and utilities to a halt.
Of course, that's just a ludicrous theory about toasters, right? The Microsoft Build event focused on the small pleasures of living with bots in the here and now. Shortly after Nadella left the stage, a Microsoft employee used a custom bot to order Domino's pizza. A Domino's apocalypse, after all, is an apocalypse I can live with. My tummy will be filled with greasy pizza as a billion Hatsune Mikus nanobots consume our fields and ocean floors for precious natural resources.