UNO + 1 Interview of César Cernuda by Lalo Zanoni
Q. Which of Microsoft’s ongoing projects are you most enthusiastic about?
A. At the moment, what I most like about our work is seeing how our Artificial Intelligence technology is helping to create a better world. There is one case that personally fascinates me: that of Otto Knoke, a data analyst who has been diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), as a result of which his hands and voice are incapacitated. Otto now uses Eye Control AI technology to interact through a screen with his family and friends and to do his work. This is just one example of how this technology helps us to develop our full potential.
I would also like to mention another project that excites me—”Microsoft Airband”. This one involves expanding internet access through television’s White Space (TVWS), which is the unused broadcasting space between channels. This will allow low-cost broadband service to be brought to disconnected rural areas. Connecting students, parents, and farmers in these areas will help them acquire new skills, improve access to education and health, increase productivity and take advantage of new markets. This is essential for helping local communities thrive and is fundamental to national development. In Colombia, for example, Microsoft, together with the Lavazza Foundation, succeeded in extending connectivity to previously disconnected coffee communities, facilitating the arrival of online education, agricultural productivity and telemedicine services, among others.
Q. What is the most important challenge in the region in technological terms?
A. The growing use of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and extensive use of the Cloud are some examples of new tools that are changing industries. Those technologies offer developing economies a chance to generate accelerated growth in forthcoming years. Their growth will be favored by adopting these new technologies, but also by companies’ ability to see a new way of conceiving their business. I believe the most important challenge for Latin America is being capable of recognizing the opportunity offered by the digital revolution to boost economic and social growth in the region. Obviously, there are still implementation challenges to be tackled, such as broadband connectivity in rural areas, the need to develop digital skills within the labor force or the importance of increasing women’s participation in industry. However, I believe the first step is to recognize the opportunity, because the technology itself can solve those social challenges.
Q. What are your principal goals in Microsoft for 2020?
A. 2020 is shaping up for us as a key year, precisely for taking the opportunity I have just mentioned. Our investments in and commitment to Artificial Intelligence, data privacy and data security are intended to help our clients transform their businesses and take up the new opportunities that this digital transformation offers.
Q. What does digital transformation mean to you?
A. In my opinion, digital transformation is essentially a cultural transformation. It is not a simple migration to the Cloud, but rather a profound change of paradigm where, thanks to data collection, cloud computing and artificial intelligence, we now have an entirely new source of knowledge, which has an impact not only on the tools we use but also in how we envisage businesses and projects.
Q. What is the best way to accompany a company/client in their digital transformation process?
A. I believe the best way is to start by listening, understanding the past, present and future we want to create. As I mentioned earlier, the transformation of a company begins in its culture, our habits must change. It is vital to be able to build on the roots that our clients have been creating, thus building on the strengths of our companies instead of thinking that we have to start from scratch. It is also important for the change to be led by the senior management, demonstrating this with facts. We are signing partnerships with strategic companies in which we undertake to be their partners in their digital transformation and, therefore, accompany them on that journey with technical and human resources.
Q. You head an area of Microsoft with more than 2,500 employees and havebeen in the company for over 20 years. What are your personal keys to being a good leader?
A. I think what is most important is to want to continue learning always. This means continuing to learn about the industry, the client and the different markets in which I have had the opportunity of working. It has been truly wonderful for me to be able to meet and learn from so many clients and partners from all over the world. Having said that, managing a group with so many people is always an enormous responsibility, a responsibility of making sure that each one of those members of the team feels appreciated, motivated and enthusiastic, and wants to achieve much more and better things. When it comes down to it, I think the success of a leader is measured through the success of their team members. A good leader must be there to help, not to order.
Q. How would you explain the new mark that Satya Nadella made in Microsoft?
A. Satya drove through a cultural change that helped us to continue being important in a digital world. He realized that we had to change from being a group of people who thought they knew everything to a group of people who wanted to learn everything. This opened the doors to a vast quantity of possibilities and projects that individuals and organizations wanted to achieve and that was how we realized that our mission was precisely to enable people to achieve more through technology.
Q. I know you are a football fan and I would like to know your opinion on the matter of technology applied to football and specific projects of Microsoft (I am aware of its partnership with Real Madrid).
A. One thing I love about Artificial Intelligence is that it can be applied in all sorts of activities and football is just one of them. Our work with Real Madrid not only helps the club to be more efficient, but also enables fans to get much closer to the players, and helps managers to improve their training programs. This is the wonderful thing about digital transformation, it impacts all aspects of a project or company and it is fantastic to see what sports clubs with international fan communities can do with these tools.
Q. How do you imagine the future of sport and technology?
A. Sport is one of the activities that develops most bonds and passion among people. What can be achieved by combining this with technology is awesome. On the one hand, it can help different leagues with practically all their needs, from improving their functioning to implementing better tools on the pitch or managing stadiums and ticket sales. However, I believe the greatest impact is on the athletes and fans. Athletes find better ways to compete, with tools to analyze their rivals and improve training. Fans are closer than ever to sport and can integrate historic data to understand sports strategies and interact with campaigns adjusted to suit their interests.
Q. The Cloud. Why do you think the cloud has taken off so spectacularly in recent years?
A. It is a relatively simple equation: basically the same quantity of data is currently generated in one day as in one year three decades ago. Why? Because we are all connected, there are far more devices than before and each one is generating data constantly. Moreover, data storage is much cheaper. The cost of storing one GB has fallen from USD 45,000 to just 2 cents! Finally, the processing of those data (i.e. the machines needed to process data) has also changed and is much more economical. For example, to process one Teraflop in the nineties, it was necessary to invest in a machine that cost 70 million dollars. These days you can process 1 Teraflop with an EBox One S (USD 299). In turn, the Cloud has opened its doors to anyone anywhere, of any size and from any industry, with access to tools using artificial intelligence to analyze data, thus releasing their potential.
Q. How do you compete with Amazon AWS in this industry?
A. We continue working on our mission of enabling organizations and people to achieve more, as our principal guideline. We have been working for 40 years on our commitment to society, governments and companies. Our company has more regions than any other in the world (Data Centers) and I am proud to be able to say that we have had offices in Latin America for over 35 years and are present in more than 25 countries. I always define Microsoft as a global company with local presence. This has meant understanding that it is absolutely vital to preserve the privacy and security of our clients’ data. Our tools and platforms foster creativity and help to boost the productivity of small businesses, make large enterprises more competitive, and enable the public sector to be more efficient. They also support entrepreneurs, enhance results in education and healthcare and stimulate human ingenuity. Our goal lies in our clients’ success.
Q. In an interview with The Telegraph, Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, said that the use of ‘lethal autonomous weapon systems’ poses a host of new ethical questions which need to be considered by governments as a matter of urgency. What should the ethical limits of AI be?
A. This is an extremely important issue for us and something that Brad Smith discusses in depth in his new book “Tools and Weapons”, written in collaboration with Carol Ann Browne. We believe that all work in Artificial Intelligence must follow ethical principles based on important, universal values. More specifically, AI must be designed to treat people fairly and avoid any bias; it must be reliable and safe to use, respect privacy and data protection, be inclusive of all individuals and communities; and it must be transparent in its processing and operations. Finally, we must be responsible for the solutions we create.
Q. Do you think AI should be regulated? How?
A. We believe that, precisely to make sure we have responsible AI, governments should take a proactive approach to the regulation of digital technology. We believe that if the regulation is to benefit each community in the best way, it is crucial for governments to talk more and more to those who create technology, such as Microsoft. We consider it fundamental to generate those forums and bridges for governments to get an insight into the technologies and thus produce regulation that will not have a negative impact on innovation and creativity and will boost entrepreneurship.
Q. How do you imagine interaction between people and AI from now to 2030?
A. We believe AI offers incredible opportunities for people’s social and economic advancement. The key is to develop AI in a way that focuses on humans, with the goal of using it to increase people’s innate ingenuity. AI has the potential to help society overcome some of our most important challenges, from reducing poverty and improving education to providing health services and eradicating diseases, and even producing enough food for the world’s population.
Imagine, then, what it would mean in terms of lives saved, suffering alleviated and human potential boosted if we could take advantage of AI to help us find solutions to these challenges? As with the great advances of the past (including electricity, telephones and transistors), AI will bring about great changes, some of which are difficult to imagine today.
In the same way, as occurred with these earlier technological breakthroughs, we will have to think carefully how to tackle the social issues that these changes will produce. We must all work together to see that AI is developed responsibly, so that people will trust it and implement it far and wide, both to increase personal and commercial productivity and to contribute to solving social problems.
Q. What is your vision of the future of work with regard to machines and robots replacing people?
A. The question of AI replacing people has been widely debated, especially regarding manual work that can be automated. However, we believe that this vision simplifies the impact of technology. Almost any job has routine elements that affect productivity. If AI can perform those tasks, this enables the workers to focus on more important issues. Instead of replacing humans, AI is a complement, a support that enables people to make the decisions that require their attention. Artificial Intelligence is transforming labor and although it might eliminate some jobs, it will generate new ones, many of which do not yet exist. We have seen the same phenomenon with each industrial revolution and the advantage is that this time we have better knowledge and can prepare ourselves to ensure that the change benefits everyone.
Q. What is your opinion on the manipulation of users’ private data made by large enterprises like Facebook and Google? The case of Cambridge Analytica, etc.
A. We consider privacy to be a fundamental value and it is essential to protect it if we are to earn the trust of our clients.
Q. What are the differences between Microsoft and other companies that collect big data in the processing, management and sale of personal data?
A. Microsoft only uses clients’ data to provide the agreed services and for purposes related with the provision of those services. We do not share our clients’ data with our services backed by advertisers, nor do we engage in data mining for marketing or advertising.