Week in Review: Microsoft’s Introspective CEO on Trust in Tech

There was a lot of interesting tech news to catch up on in Seattle this week, though it was easy to miss it amid the roar and rumble of astonishing political, nuclear waste, and seismic* developments near and far. Read on for highlights from Microsoft’s developer conference; a new Echo device from Amazon, and its novel plan to incorporate a homeless shelter into its Seattle headquarters; a large new building for the University of Washington’s Population Health Initiative; and all that political, nuclear, and seismic stuff, too.

—Microsoft held its Build developer conference in Seattle this week. Here are a few things that stood out to me:

During his keynote, CEO Satya Nadella leavened the hype with some tech-industry introspection.

“What Orwell prophesied in 1984, where technology was being used to monitor, control, dictate; or what Huxley imagined we may do by just distracting ourselves without any meaning or purpose. Neither of these futures is something that we want. So the question is: What are we going to do? What are the practical ways we can make progress?”

He said technology should empower more people, amplifying their capability and ingenuity, with “inclusive design”.

As technology is evermore integrated into every aspect of life, “building trust in technology is crucial,” he added. “And I think it starts with us taking accountability, taking accountability for the algorithms we create, the experiences that we create, and ensuring that there is more trust in technology with each day.”

Harry Shum, the executive vice president leading Microsoft’s artificial intelligence push, outlined the company’s vision to “make the power of AI available to everyone, from developers and data scientists to tech enthusiasts and students.” He said Microsoft now offers 29 cognitive services—“off-the-shelf and custom AI capabilities” that developers can integrate into their software “with just a few lines of code.”

Microsoft rolled out new motion controllers for its Windows Mixed Reality technology—a set of low-cost headsets from third-party hardware makers that combine with sensors and Windows 10 PCs to enable virtual reality experiences.

(Here’s a great long read from Katie Herzog, published in The Stranger, on virtual reality’s promise and perils, focusing on an early and important VR application in Seattle: managing the extreme pain of patients recovering at the Harborview Burn Center.)

Also, the forthcoming Windows 10 update promises greater interoperability with Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. There’s a sentence that would astonish a time traveler from, say, 2007.

—Amazon’s Alexa device family got an update this week with the announcement of the Echo Show—an Echo with a touch screen and cameras.  (Microsoft, meanwhile, touted a first in-home toehold for its voice-controlled digital assistant, Cortana, with the announcement of the Invoke speaker from Harman Kardon.)

The Echo Show is directly comparable to Nucleus, a product from a startup that Amazon invested in out of its Alexa Fund last year, as ReCode reports. Nucleus founder and CEO Jonathan Frankel suggested this could hamper Amazon’s efforts to build an ecosystem around its voice-control technology.

“They must realize that by trying to trample over us—a premiere partner in the Alexa Fund ecosystem—that they are going to really cripple that ecosystem and put a warning out for others,” Frankel told ReCode.

—Meanwhile, Amazon announced that it will create a permanent space for a homeless shelter in its growing Seattle headquarters campus.

Longtime Seattle journalist and opinion writer Joni Balter looks at Amazon’s recent local philanthropic activities, and the corporate giant’s broader impact on the city, in this Bloomberg View column.

—The University of Washington Board of Regents approved a site for a new 300,000-square-foot building for the flagship Population Health Initiative. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is financing most of the $230 million project, with state funds covering $20 million.

Located along 15th Avenue Northeast south of Northeast 40th Street, the building will accommodate the Department of Global Health, parts of the School of Public Health, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), and make room for collaborators from other departments and beyond the UW.

The IHME churns out research such as an eye-opening, county-by-county look at changing life expectancies in the U.S. over the last 34 years. The study finds a widening gap between life expectancy from place to place, and decreasing life expectancies in 13 counties.

“Looking at life expectancy on a national level masks the massive differences that exist at the local level, especially in a country as diverse as the United States,” said Laura Dwyer-Lindgren, a researcher at IHME and lead author of the study, in a statement. “Risk factors like obesity, lack of exercise, high blood pressure, and smoking explain a large portion of the variation in lifespans, but so do socioeconomic factors like race, education, and income.”

The study data can be explored in depth with a great data visualization produced by IHME.

—In local politics, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, denying sexual abuse allegations dating back three decades, announced he will not seek re-election. New candidates announcing this week include former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and State Rep. Jessyn Farrell.

Should you be interested in joining the fray—and so far there’s not an obvious tech industry candidate—check out this useful (and hilarious) form created by writer Katie Herzog, author of the above-mentioned story on VR.

—A tunnel containing radioactive waste at the Hanford Site, a 586-square-mile federal nuclear facility near the Tri-Cities in Eastern Washington collapsed on Tuesday morning. The tunnel—next to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility, which was used during the Cold War to manufacture nuclear weapons—held rail cars full of contaminated equipment. The Department of Energy said no contamination was released, and the hole in the tunnel was filled in.

The Washington Department of Ecology issued an enforcement order requiring the U.S. Department of Energy to assess and repair the network of tunnels at Hanford.

*To my colleagues in Pacific Northwest news writing: May I suggest we confine the adjective “seismic” to actual earth movements? A new candidate for mayor—even someone with Durkan’s resume—should not amount to a seismic shift in a region that is overdue for a real, catastrophic, seismic shift.

Earlier this spring, I read the outstanding and terrifying book, Full-Rip 9.0: The Next Big Earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, by Seattle Times science reporter Sandi Doughton, so maybe I’m feeling a little over-sensitive on that topic right now. The swarm of small quakes deep below the Seattle Fault this week didn’t help.

Also, May is Volcano Preparedness Month, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption, which happened May 18, 1980, at 8:32 a.m. How are you celebrating?

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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