When Mr Nadella went to Canberra


James Riley
Editorial Director

AI ethics is the new frontier when it comes to policies, guidelines or regulation. But the first thing we must look at when it comes to AI is how is it going to augment human productivity.

During an on-stage chat with CSIRO chair David Thodey at an Institute for Public Affairs function at Parliament House in Canberra, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella spoke to policymakers about the need for a set of principles to guide engineering practices in developing AI systems.

Just as good user experience was based on a set of engineering principles, the same applies to AI he said, citing fairness, robustness, privacy and security, inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability as developmental cornerstones.

“Privacy is a very big consideration, but once you have the right policy framework in place that allows citizens’ data to be shared in such a way that the government can operate more effectively,” Mr Nadella said. “it can make a huge difference.”

The key to successful AI can be found in the answers to questions like “are citizens getting better healthcare, better credit, better access to education and other public services because of the way their data is being used? That is our responsibility as a society,”.

In a veiled swipe at social media giants such as Facebook and Google, Mr Nadella observed that our data is currently being used for commercial means very effectively, adding that what needs to happen next is a shift towards data benefitting citizens more, rather than private enterprises.

“What I think is going to be important in the next phase is the need for more of a balance,” he said.

Around emerging areas, such as digital, Mr Nadella stressed that public sector leaders cannot allow a massive disconnect between the capabilities within the government and what our citizens expect from them.

“The work that government is doing to up skill public servants is among the most important work it will do,” he said.

When asked about the importance of inclusivity in technology, Mr Nadella, who has a son with severe brain damage caused by in-utero asphyxiation during childbirth which left him with cerebral palsy, said that it was of fundamental importance that inclusivity be built into technology at its inception, rather than something that is tacked on at the end.

“We need to go from assistive technology to inclusive design. Inclusivity needs to be built into technology at the design phase. The technology that we deliver has to be built around inclusivity and policymakers around the world need to set that bar to bring about universal design inclusiveness,” Mr Nadella said.

Representation also creates a culture of inclusiveness, whether it relates to gender, ethnicity, or people with disabilities. With machine learning and comprehension technology, Mr Nadella said that people with conditions such as dyslexia are now able to read because they can adapt and personalise features to what works best for their specific needs.

“These are breakthrough technologies that are going to deliver economic opportunity to more people.”

Unsurprisingly, as the leader of one the world’s largest multinational companies, Mr Nadella had some interesting insights to share on what he considers to be the key attributes of a great leader.

A keen cricketer in his youth, Mr Nadella said participation in the sport helped to shape the kind of leader he is today. He quipped said that “If I was a good enough cricketer, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today!

“Many of us are shaped by team sports when it comes to our leadership style. I was bowling real trash one day but the captain kept giving me the ball back, and I eventually turned things around and took some wickets.

“I later asked him why he persevered with me and he replied ‘I didn’t want your confidence to be dented because the team needs you.’ This gave me a lot of confidence, because even though I wasn’t having a great match, the captain had confidence in me that I could turn things around.

“Sometimes leaders when they panic, they cause people to lose confidence around them. That’s something that I think a lot about,” he added.

Great leaders, Mr Nadella said, come into situations that are ambiguous and uncertain and are expected to bring clarity.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates used to say there are two types of smart people; those who come in and bring clarity and those who are so smart that they only create more confusion.

“Leaders also innately bring energy. They’re infectious. But it’s about creating energy all around you, not just in your immediate vicinity. So that’s another metric that I hold myself responsible for,” said Mr Nadella.

The most defining attribute of a leader, according to Mr Nadella, are those who have the ability to take an over-constrained problem and figure a path through it.

“Leadership is not about saying ‘give me the flattest pitch and the easiest bowler, then I’ll score a century.’ If that was the case, I’d have been a great cricketer,” he said.

“It’s about resourcefulness and the ability to solve difficult problems when the solutions are not obvious.”

“Clarity, energy and being able to deliver success are the measurements of how you should hold yourself accountable as a leader.”

Mr Nadella then touched upon some of the some of the keys to Microsoft’s growing and enduring success over the last 40 years.

“Long term, systemic change is hard. But strength comes from being deliberate about how you bring about change. Change that accommodates for what is a changing society with changing needs and, at least in our case, the pace for change happens because there is a new need in the market and a new concept.

“But, of course, to meet the challenge of that you also need new capabilities. This encourages more collaboration. But unless you have a foundational culture that allows you to build these capabilities, you will never be able to keep up with the times.”

He cautioned against getting too big for one’s boots, admitting that some of his own colleagues fell into that trap when Microsoft first became the world’s most valuable company.

“When we became the largest market cap company for the first time in 1998, this led to some people within the organisation walking the halls like they were God’s gift to mankind. But the reality is we were not,” he said.

“We rode a wave and we were successful. But from ancient Greece to modern day Silicon Valley, one of the things that has always brought civilizations and companies down is hubris.

“Managing that all comes down to having a culture that doesn’t purport to know it all, but one that places itself in a position where they can learn it all.”

On what he swears by when it comes to retaining the ability to innovate, Mr Nadella said: “Having the courage every day to confront your own fixed mindset…is the ultimate challenge for bringing about systemic change.

“Because that’s what will allow you to build capability long before you need it and really go after new concepts which will have a huge impact.”

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