How can Microsoft balance the benefits of AI and pervasive computing with user privacy? Do they even need to?

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I’ve been thinking about a couple of interesting articles over the past few days, namely Paul’s ‘The Failure of Windows Phone and the Next Big Thing’ (https://www.thurrott.com/mobile/windows-phone/82610/failure-windows-phone-next-big-thing) and Brad’s ‘Microsoft’s Home Hub Looks To Bring Cortana To The Kitchen’ (https://www.thurrott.com/hardware/83654/microsofts-home-hub-looks-bring-cortana-kitchen). 

I currently have no interest in talking to my computer. I made a concerted effort when Windows 10 came out bundled with Cortana to use it as much as I could and make it a part of my day to day workflows, but ultimately it’s still just easier for me to use my trusty mouse and keyboard. 

That being said, I think AI and relatedly pervasive computing are going to be big. While hovercars and holodecks are still a distant dream, the sci-fi future where I can walk up to my house, unlock the door using Windows Hello, have the lights come on and my favourite music automatically start playing when sensors detect it’s me who has walked into a room, ask Cortana what food is in the fridge and have one of the Echo like AI enabled devices located in every room respond to me, tell it to play a movie on one of the various connected screens located throughout the house while I do some cooking, ask it to order me a self driving taxi to arrive so I can make a date in 30 minutes depending on the traffic conditions, leave the house and have my movie playing where it left off in the car is just around the corner, if not here already. Assuming this is an area MS does decide to get inolved in, of course, although this is appearing increasinly likely. 

While I think this sounds amazing, it would also mean that Microsoft, a for-profit company, would know almost everything about me, and this makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Knowledge of movements, tastes, habits, communications, far greater than they have today. And of course if Microsoft have it, what guarantees are there that it wont be accessed by a government agency? Or released in a data breach? 

But does this even matter? Having a camera on a laptop pointing at our face all day and carrying around a GPS tracker in our phones everywhere we go are things that 30 years ago would sound uncomfortably 1984ish, but we now demand that our devices have these things, and base our buying habits around them. Conversely, there were real concerns – even outcries – about the privacy implications of Google Glass. Windows 10 perhaps fell somewhere in the middle, with complaints about data tracking and the like being common in the early days but quickly dying off. 

Where will future forays into these fields fall? Will privacy concerns prevent AI like Cortana from becoming truly mainstream, and keep it relegated to an interesting novelty? What about devices like Home Hub? Will we feel uncomfortable allowing them more and more access into our homes and lives, controlling appliances, lighting, heating and communications, instead keeping it as a glorified voice enabled MP3 player? Or will these concerns be swept aside as we embrace the utility of the devices. 

Talking specifically about Microsoft, if they were to get involved, what guarantees could they make, or what systems could them implement to reassure people that only necessary data is being gathered, and that it is being kept safe? Cortana’s Notebook feature seems to be a good step towards this. And could Microsoft leverage it’s image as a security conscious safe pair of hands (Brad has an interesting article about this here: https://www.thurrott.com/windows/windows-10/83177/microsoft-security-company-premium) to get an advantage over the likes of Google who are traditionally seen as only wanting users so they can commercialize their data, or Amazon who presumably just want to sell us as much as possible?

Would love to hear your thoughts. 

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