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Microsoft CEO: 'We Need To Ask Not Only What Computers Can Do But What Computers Should Do'

In talking about the responsibility of tech companies helping society in his Build keynote, Satya Nadella invokes authors Aldous Huxley and George Orwell and says 'none of us want to see a future' that they imagined.

To Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, "The world is becoming a computer — computing is getting embedded in every person, place and thing."

But with that increasing ubiquity comes a responsibility to protect people's security and privacy, as well as to sustain and grow economic opportunity around the world, the CEO said in his keynote at the Redmond, Wash.-based company's annual Build conference Monday.

"We have the responsibility to ensure that these technologies are empowering [everyone], that these technologies are creating equitable growth by ensuring every industry is able to grow and create employment," he said. "But we also have a responsibility as a tech industry to build trust in technology."

In his speech, Nadella likened the shift to cloud and edge computing to the industrial revolution, where the period's core technologies, such as electricity and internal combustion, weren't something that could be seen. He called the opportunities in the growth of cloud and edge computing, "in some sense, endless."

New applications, platforms and capabilities in cloud and edge computing were the major focus of Microsoft's announcements at the 2018 Build conference. They included the open-sourcing of the Azure IoT Edge Runtime, a new Speech Devices SDK and the Project Kinect for Azure sensor developer kit.

In talking about the responsibility of tech companies helping society, Nadella invoked the names of dystopian authors Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, saying "none of us want to see a future" that they imagined. He also quoted philosopher Hans Jonas, who once said, "Act so that the effects of your actions are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life."

"We need to develop a set of principles that guide the choices we make because the choices we make are going to guide our future," Nadella said.

Those principles include protecting people's privacy, which the CEO called a "human right." He highlighted the company's plans to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation, the sweeping set of data privacy regulations known as GDPR that are set to go into effect in the European Union later this month. He also pointed to the company's support of the federal CLOUD Act, which Congress passed earlier this year, giving the U.S. more access to data stored overseas.

"We hope we can create an intergovernmental framework to ensure that customers are in control and privacy is preserved," Nadella said.

The Microsoft CEO also said cybersecurity is an imperative, calling the recently announced Cybersecurity Tech Accord the "Digital Geneva Convention of our time."

"We need to act with collective responsibility across the tech sector to keep the world safe," he said.

With the growing prevalence of artificial intelligence within the products of Microsoft and other companies, Nadella underlined the importance of "ethical AI." As part of the company's own efforts, the CEO said Microsoft has formed an ethics board with a "very diverse group of people who govern products we build." He added that the tech industry needs "privacy-preserving AI."

"We need to ask not only what computers can do but what computers should do," he said.

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