Ro­bots won’t take jobs

Twenty years af­ter it was the world’s top tech com­pany, the soft­ware giant has got its mojo back, finds James Tit­comb

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front Page -

Mi­crosoft boss Satya Nadella has dis­missed claims ro­bots will put an end to hu­man labour, say­ing peo­ple will al­ways want a job as it gives them “dig­nity”. In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with The Sun­day Tele­graph, he says the need for a hu­man touch in many jobs will mean they never go away, even in a “run­away AI” sce­nario.

When Satya Nadella took charge of Mi­crosoft four years ago, the com­pany was hardly on its knees. But the soft­ware giant, re­spon­si­ble for Win­dows, Of­fice and In­ter­net Ex­plorer, had un­doubt­edly lost its way.

Nadella’s pre­de­ces­sor Steve Ballmer, in one of his last acts as chief ex­ec­u­tive, pushed through the €5.4bn (£4.7bn) ac­qui­si­tion of Nokia’s mo­bile phone busi­ness, in a des­per­ate at­tempt to take on its old rival Ap­ple.

The deal was an­nounced af­ter Ballmer had al­ready re­vealed plans to re­tire. It looked very much like a part­ing shot, a com­bi­na­tion of two busi­nesses past their prime and who had lost their way in the iphone era. Ballmer, a su­per­charged, high­ly­compet­i­tive brawler, had in­her­ited the chief ex­ec­u­tive’s seat from Bill Gates 13 years ear­lier, when Mi­crosoft was on top of the world.

“Be­cause of the suc­cess we had, we felt that we were the know-it-alls, [that] we were just great,” Nadella says. “Ex­cept none of that was true. We had a suc­cess­ful busi­ness, we had suc­cess­ful prod­ucts, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make you a per­pet­ual great. I think that is when you go from con­fi­dence to hubris, and that’s brought down every­body, from em­pires in An­cient Greece to Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies.”

Nadella, 50, is in many ways the op­po­site of Ballmer. He is wiry, stu­dious and mea­sured. He is a passionate cricket en­thu­si­ast, thanks to a child­hood spent play­ing around his home town of Hy­der­abad (one of Ballmer’s first acts af­ter leav­ing Mi­crosoft was buy­ing the Los An­ge­les Clip­pers bas­ket­ball team).

Un­der his com­mand, Mi­crosoft has changed too. The com­pany, once de­fined by its ruth­lessly com­pet­i­tive na­ture, has be­come friend­lier, more will­ing to team up with those who were once deemed en­e­mies. Em­ploy­ees carry copies of The Growth

Mind­set, a book by the psy­chol­o­gist Carol Dweck about con­stant im­prove­ment. In Nadella’s first move as Mi­crosoft chief, he un­veiled a ver­sion of its Of­fice soft­ware de­vel­oped for Ap­ple’s ipad. Win­dows 10, the first ver­sion of the soft­ware re­leased un­der his watch, was given away for free, a move that once would have been un­think­able. And just a few months af­ter in­her­it­ing the Nokia busi­ness, he be­gan to dis­man­tle it, ac­cept­ing that there were some bat­tles Mi­crosoft could not win.

In­stead of try­ing to com­pete on all fronts, Nadella has nar­rowed Mi­crosoft’s aims. The com­pany’s pow­er­house divi­sions have turned out to be its pro­duc­tiv­ity soft­ware such as Word, Ex­cel and Out­look, and cloud com­put­ing, the divi­sion Nadella ran be­fore be­com­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive. In­stead of de­mand­ing vic­tory, Nadella now talks about help­ing oth­ers.

“What we have learned is to just be con­sis­tent in build­ing trust and just mak­ing sure that you’re not just mea­sur­ing your suc­cess by your own suc­cess,” he says.

That said, Nadella’s four years in charge can­not be de­scribed as any­thing but a suc­cess. Un­der his watch, its share price has in­creased by 170pc, fi­nally over­tak­ing the lev­els from the peak of the dot­com boom.

It has been a long road from Mi­crosoft’s pre­vi­ous pomp. Twenty years ago this month, Mi­crosoft – then the most pow­er­ful tech­nol­ogy com­pany in the world – was ac­cused by the US govern­ment of ex­ploit­ing its mo­nop­oly po­si­tion in computer soft­ware to force peo­ple to use its own web browser. The com­pany ul­ti­mately es­caped with­out sig­nif­i­cant for­mal pu­n­ish­ment, but was so chas­tened by the ex­pe­ri­ence that it was put on the back foot when it came to the new wave of 21st cen­tury tech­nol­ogy – per­sonal me­dia de­vices such as the ipod, and then the smart­phone. It is only now that the com­pany has re­gained its mojo.

“Tak­ing the bur­den off try­ing to act like you are God’s gift, but more be­ing able to con­front the re­al­ity is I think what has been help­ful to me, but we wouldn’t claim we’ve reached any des­ti­na­tion,” Nadella says. “We have to con­tin­u­ally re­new and change.”

Nadella may have rein­vented Mi­crosoft but he did not ar­rive as a fresh face in 2014. Hav­ing moved to the US from In­dia to study (Nadella re­tains the ac­cent, but with dis­tinct US in­flec­tions) he ar­rived at Mi­crosoft in 1992, when he was poached by Sun Mi­crosys­tems. One senses there is still plenty of the old Mi­crosoft fight there.

When I ask if he sees par­al­lels be­tween the an­titrust case of two decades ago and to­day’s fears over Sil­i­con Val­ley’s power, he bris­tles some­what, and even goes so far as to de­fend the Mi­crosoft of 1998 against the “closed” prac­tices of many tech com­pa­nies to­day.

“I al­ways make this case, which is if it was not for Mi­crosoft’s open­ness, the web wouldn’t have hap­pened. I was talking to [web cre­ator Sir] Tim Bern­ers-lee yes­ter­day and I sort of said: ‘Think about the cur­rent ecosys­tems and how closed and how walled gar­dened and rid­dled with all kinds of ways they’ve rigged it, [com­pared] to where we were.’

“Every com­pany will need to go through and ask it­self: ‘Are you cre­at­ing sur­plus around you or are you ex­tract­ing sur­plus for your­self ’. When that equa­tion gets un­bal­anced I think things just have to cor­rect.”

When pressed on whether tech gi­ants like Face­book and Google have too much power, Nadella in­sists it is not his job to remark on oth­ers. “The peo­ple whose job it is to think about who is cre­at­ing what value, is there value cre­ation or value ex­trac­tion, is there some­thing that is cre­at­ing more com­pe­ti­tion or less com­pe­ti­tion, is I think the job of oth­ers to opine.”

Nadella re­cently de­scribed pri­vacy as a “hu­man right”, a well-timed remark as sweep­ing new pri­vacy rules come into force in Eu­rope. He de­scribes the GDPR as “ro­bust” and cre­at­ing “the right value around how users should think”.

The cur­rent de­bate around pri­vacy also gives him a chance to bur­nish Mi­crosoft’s own pri­vacy cre­den­tials. Un­like Google or Face­book, its ser­vices are paid for di­rectly.

“Our busi­ness model is based on our cus­tomers be­ing suc­cess­ful, and if they are suc­cess­ful they will pay us. So we are not one of th­ese trans­ac­tion drive nor ad-driven or mar­ket­place driven economies.

“I don’t think I am nec­es­sar­ily say­ing one busi­ness model is bet­ter than the other but I do be­lieve right now Mi­crosoft is prob­a­bly on the right side of his­tory.”

Nadella says many smaller busi­nesses are con­fused over whether large tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies are out to help or de­stroy them. Mil­lions of com­pa­nies and start-ups, for ex­am­ple, rely on Ama­zon’s cloud com­put­ing arm, Web Ser­vices, but the wider com­pany of­ten rep­re­sents an ex­is­ten­tial threat to many of them.

Although Nadella does not name Ama­zon, he in­di­cates that the lack of such con­flicts helps Mi­crosoft.

“Cus­tomers are un­clear [about] ‘oh this is some­body I can go to for cloud com­put­ing but they are also com­pet­ing with me, they also have this other sys­tem which is es­sen­tially a tax­a­tion sys­tem on all trans­ac­tions.’

“Those are all, I think, things that cus­tomers think about. In our case they don’t have to think about any of those be­cause it’s pretty un­am­bigu­ous what our busi­ness is and what our busi­ness model is.”

De­spite this, Mi­crosoft is not typ­i­cally in the busi­ness of start­ing fights th­ese days. Ex­ec­u­tives have ap­peared on stage at Ap­ple events, and Ama­zon it­self was in­vited to demon­strate a tie-up be­tween its voice as­sis­tant Alexa and Mi­crosoft’s coun­ter­part, Cor­tana, at a re­cent Mi­crosoft con­fer­ence. Nadella has big­ger things on his mind af­ter all. He is op­ti­mistic about the po­ten­tial of tech­nol­ogy – of im­bu­ing ev­ery­thing from medicine to fac­to­ries with in­ter­net con­nec­tions and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI). While his child­hood in In­dia was rel­a­tively com­fort­able, it has given him a world-view dis­tinct from many tech­nol­ogy ex­ec­u­tives who grew up on a US coast.

His first child, Zain, a son, was born with se­vere dis­abil­i­ties and one of his daugh­ters has learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties that meant Nadella and his wife Anu spent many hours of her child­hood driv­ing from Seattle to a school in Van­cou­ver.

Nadella is broadly op­ti­mistic that AI will solve more prob­lems than it causes, but says it is im­per­a­tive that the tech­nol­ogy is ap­plied eth­i­cally. “What I think needs to be done in 2018 is more di­a­logue around the ethics, the prin­ci­ples that we can use for the en­gi­neers and com­pa­nies that are build­ing AI, so that the choices we make don’t cause us to cre­ate sys­tems with bias … that’s the tan­gi­ble thing we should be work­ing on.”

He is also con­fi­dent that hu­man jobs will sur­vive the ro­bot rev­o­lu­tion. “I don’t be­lieve in that lump of labour fal­lacy, we don’t know all the jobs that are go­ing to be there.” If ro­bots do re­place hu­mans, he says mech­a­nisms such as univer­sal ba­sic in­come may be needed, draw­ing com­par­isons with the labour move­ment, but that hu­mans will al­ways need jobs. “There is a cer­tain amount of dig­nity to what is work so we need to have an in­cen­tive sys­tem.”

In com­par­i­son, Brexit seems to con­cern him lit­tle. Mi­crosoft warned be­fore the ref­er­en­dum that a Leave vote could af­fect in­vest­ment, but when the ro­bot rev­o­lu­tion comes, it will care lit­tle for such mat­ters.

“The United King­dom has great hu­man cap­i­tal, great in­dus­try, a great sys­tem,” Nadella says. “I think in the fu­ture it’ll con­tinue to thrive, even if I think there are go­ing to be some turns.”

‘We wouldn’t claim we’ve reached any des­ti­na­tion. We have to con­tin­u­ally re­new and change’

‘We had a suc­cess­ful busi­ness, we had suc­cess­ful prod­ucts, but that doesn’t make you a per­pet­ual great’

Satya Nadella, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Mi­crosoft, dur­ing a brief visit to Lon­don. Un­der his stew­ard­ship the com­pany’s share price has in­creased by 170pc

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.