Chris Bishop, Lab Director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, talks AI

Don’t lose sight of the benefits of AI, Microsoft Research Lab director Chris Bishop tells Future Decoded

People must not lose sight of the benefits artificial intelligence can bring to the world amid public concerns about its future use, the head of Microsoft’s UK research lab has said at Future Decoded. 

Dr Chris BishopDirector of the Cambridge Research Lab, said AI must be developed with trust and ethics in mind, but that the failure to use data to improve society may be “unethical” and could even put lives at risk. 

“There’s another big risk with AI, and it’s one that I think is not often discussed,” he said on day two of the company’s largest UK event. “If we focus too much on the fear, the pessimism and the risks, we risk turning our backs on this technology. The failure to capture data and to use that data will literally cost lives. In fact, it may even be unethical not to deploy this technology in many cases. 

“For example, imagine being able to increase food production or help tackle climate change, or deliver personalised healthcare to you as an individual. [But] we need to be grounded in trust.” 

Elaborating on his view that failing to use data could cost lives, Bishop gave the example of the UK physician John Snow, who in the 1850s plotted cholera outbreaks in London on a map. That data helped him realise there was a cluster of cases, and trace the source of the disease to a water pump. After arranging to have the pump’s handle removed, the number of people with cholera declined significantly in that area. In the process, Snow founded epidemiology. 

Bishop said Microsoft was using its powerful research capabilities to help others design new drugs and therapiesand develop personalised medicine. He pointed to a recent announcement by Microsoft regarding a collaboration with Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis company Novartis that would see the firms set up a new innovation lab and use the power of data and AI to transform medicine. 

A Future Decoded sign in the expo hall

Future Decoded was held at the ExCeL in London

Bishop spoke to thousands of journalists, analysts, business leaders and technology fans at the ExCeL on the second day of the two-day event. 

Those attending also heard from Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer, who spoke about how accessibility tools such as Background Blur in Teams, Immersive Reader and the Xbox Adaptive Controller, are empowering people with disabilities. She called on more companies and their staff to embrace the accessibility tools embedded in Windows and Office. 

Lay-Flurrie highlighted other moves Microsoft has made to encourage diversity and inclusion, such as painting disabled parking signs on the ground of the company’s Redmond campus to make them look 3D, so they stand out. The office also has larger lift buttons that stretch to the ground, so people can press them with their feet, elbows or bump them with their wheelchairs. 

Future Decoded was held on October 1 and 2. Microsoft UK Chief Executive Cindy Rose opened the event on day one by saying that demand from the public for ethical, unbiased and inclusive technology is rising and it’s critical that organisations meet those concerns “head on”. 

Other speakers included Peggy Johnson, Microsoft’s Executive Vice-President of Business DevelopmentLucas Joppa, Microsoft’s Chief Environmental OfficerChief Operating Officer Clare Barclay, and UK astronauts Helen Sharman and Tim Peake.