The Intelligent Workplace

The Intelligent Workplace

Episode 5

From inquisitive to intelligent

Dean Corcoran, Microsoft

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From a very early age, Dean Corcoran was inquisitive about everything! It started in his backyard as a youngster, where he would explore the natural wonders he found under rocks, up trees and in the dirt. Fast forward into his adult life and that sense of wonder hasn’t disappeared, but now he’s in a new backyard. And that backyard is the fast paced world of Microsoft.
 
Dean is a Data and AI Solutions Strategist for Microsoft Australia. He works with businesses to integrate the latest technologies that drive workplace improvement. Technologies such as Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things. Dean believes that tech must symbiotically be part of the world we work, live and play in to be beneficial. This idea is something that rings true with the Intelligent Workplace concept.
 
Join me as I explore Dean’s knowledge of AI, and how he sees it taking the Intelligent Workplace to another level. Enjoy the conversation.

Chris:                     

Hi, I’m Chris Lukianenko and this is the Intelligent Workplace brought to you by Live Tiles. My chance to speak with the industry experts and explore the new ideas and technologies that are shaping and transforming the modern workplace.

Chris:                     

Joining me in the podcast today is someone, who from a very early age, was inquisitive about everything. It started in his backyard as a youngster exploring the natural wonders that he would find under rocks, up trees and in the dirt. Fast forward into his adult life and that sense of wonder hasn’t disappeared. He just has a new backyard in which to apply it, and that backyard is the fast paced world of Microsoft.

Chris:                     

Dean Corcoran is a data and AI solution strategist for Microsoft Australia. In that role he works with businesses to integrate technologies such as big data, artificial intelligence and the Internet of things to transform their businesses. Dean believes that tech must symbiotically be part of the world we work, live and play in to be beneficial, something that rings really true with the intelligent workplace concept. I’m keen to explore Dean’s knowledge of AI and how he sees that taking the intelligent workplace to another level.

Chris:                     

Welcome to the intelligent workplace, Dean Corcoran.

Dean:                    

Hi, how are you going?

Chris:                     

I’m doing really well, mate. Thanks for joining me on the podcast today, it’s great to have you onboard.

Dean:                    

Thank you very much. That was a great little intro you pulled together there.

Chris:                     

You liked that? I’m glad you liked that. Thanks very much. I like to do my research.

Dean:                    

Nostalgic actually.

Chris:                     

Speaking of nostalgia mate, tell me about this whole thing of you been a really inquisitive kid? I love that in your Linkedin profile.

Dean:                    

Yes. Look, I suppose I grew up in Country New South Wales, Australia, at a little town called Parkes. It’s been made famous for Parkes radio telescope, also known as The Dish. Yeah, so after the movie The Dish came out. I suppose that was sort of a source of inspiration and I think in country towns you have a very privileged life and that you to get amongst nature a lot. Generally everyone’s got a pretty view backyard. I didn’t live on a farm or anything but my parents came from farming backgrounds. Yeah, we’d go out chopping wood and all that sort of stuff for the fire. I generally would try and hide from having to do any hard yakka because I was a kid. As they pulled the logs up, I’d be interested in what comes out from underneath and that thing. I suppose that’s where that dirt under the fingernails stuff started.

Chris:                     

Was that inquisitive nature, like a real catalyst for setting you on your path for discovering what is an amazing world of technology?

Dean:                    

I suppose so. I think I had a very active imagination. If I was looking at creatures coming out from underneath logs and things like that, there was probably a bit of a, just a sense of wow, that’s pretty cool. Imagine if I was really little, there’d be like monsters or something. I don’t know if I would have called it inquisitiveness back then, I think it would have been just me being a kid.

Chris:                     

Just being a kid, yeah.

Dean:                    

Yeah, exactly. I got exposure to tech through my brother who got a, by today’s standards, a pretty primitive computer. There was some basic games on there and that sort of thing that just really tapped into my imagination. I think that’s where it started in many respects.

Chris:                     

I was a Commodore 64 user back the day. What was your first computer?

Dean:                   

 I had a Commodore 64 as well, but the first one I had exposure to was a Texas Instruments 99/4A which was a little bit more simple, didn’t have many games. I think that forced the creativity on me because I had to make what I had.

Chris:                     

Yes. I do have memories of having a ruler and a magazine and trying to type in machine language into the Commodore 64 for two or three days. Then you save it to a cassette tape to reload it back up and after a half an hour load, it doesn’t work. You have to go back and check it.

Dean:                    

Yeah. You had some typos that take just as long to find as the first typing. Yeah, I remember that.

Chris:                    

 Good Times. Well, mate, I’m sure the listeners are loving hearing us taking a trip down memory lane about our old computers but let’s bring it back up to the now. You’ve been at Microsoft for about 10 years and you are really at the cutting edge of some pretty cool tech, aren’t you?

Dean:                    

I think this is one of the best times to be in tech. There’s probably a few different peaks in the IT world as we call it. I think reflecting on me referring it to information technology as an industry, what’s happening right now, technology is more relevant in people’s lives than pretty much ever before. I’m not one to quote a previous CEO of Microsoft, but there was the adage of a computer on in every home. I think it’s amazing to see that there’s an extremely powerful computer in everyone’s pocket and some people have more than one and I’m walking around them willingly every day. Looking at that, that power that you have today in computing technology today is now turning on stuff that was previously sci-fi, such as this AI influenced world, if you will.

Chris:                     

AI, artificial intelligence is one of your areas of expertise. Why don’t you just describe for those of us who are not at the cutting edge of this tech, where this wave of technology is at currently?

Dean:                    

Yeah. If you look at what you see in science fiction, it’s definitely not that to the extent that there’s robots working down the street and I question that line of thought in many respects. To make it more real what you have is computing technology today that can look at things a little bit more arbitrarily, for lack of a better word. In the past it was very much bits go in, bits go out of a system and it was very much spreadsheet type of logic. Whereas now systems have the ability to say, well let’s have a look at the patterns in the data. Let’s have a look at the correlations in the data. That’s where we’re starting to see the real power. When you look at things a little bit more in a more generalized nature, whereas before you had to spend a lot of time just getting data prepared for a very specific function.

Dean:                    

Now you can get information that’s in the form of lots and lots of data or big data as it’s became known and say, “Tell us what you see?” Effectively in a sense that that is much more along the lines of hire a thousand interns to look at the data and get them to give you a report. That’s the sort of power that you have today. Where this gets really interesting is where you start applying this to natural, very human sorts of characteristics or biological characteristics of recognition of what’s in a photo or what’s in a video or what sounds or words are being said. Then connecting that back as something you can make decisions on in an organization or for an individual.

Dean:                    

That’s where we are today. That technology of being able to get a higher purpose from more arbitrary sources of information, which was in the past, a bit of a black box to computer systems. If you had a photo in the past, it was no more meaningful to the computer than the file name really. Whereas now you’ve got a photo and it says, well there’s five people in this photo and three of them are smiling, one of them is frowning and one of them is surprised. One’s 16 and one’s 18, there’s two females and a male, those types of things. It’s getting really, really deep into areas that we considered only really humans were capable of.

Chris:                     

I love that you bring that whole human element into this because what we’re talking about here is general AI as opposed to the narrow AI of the past. That’s really what we’re using to augment the intelligent workplace concept and it’s where the cognitive functions come in, don’t they? We’re getting that blurring of the lines between human and computer, which is something that Microsoft does with their cognitive services. That’s a big element of this AI tech but can you once again just explain some of the elements of those cognitive services for us?

Dean:                    

Yeah. That’s an area that I find is immense amount of fun.

Chris:                     

It is, yeah.

Dean:                   

Because that is really doing stuff that people just didn’t really see technology doing in the past. I suppose just going back to what you say about general AI and narrow AI, cognitive services are a narrow AI in that they’re really good at this one task better. It’s crossing the boundary from the spreadsheet into the domain of that natural world in that it’s photos, language, video, audio and arbitrary knowledge data. If that makes sense? Things like Wikipedia, you could consider it to be a knowledge base.

Dean:                    

Cognitive services broadly, if you break them up, do break into those different areas that I just mentioned in that you’ve got vision services where you can get video and pictures and ask the systems to identify what’s in there.

Dean:                    

It can be much more meaningful to an organization than just a photo that says, oh yeah, this is a picture of the harbor bridge and there’s people having a picnic on a table in front of it, what a nice day. You know it’s sunny, it’s those types of things. There’s a boat in the background, this is all the locations of a picture you will find the things I found. It can be more meaningful than that even though that’s very powerful in that you can train systems to look at.

Dean:                   

In one case I’m working with an organization who is taking video from robots that are going through pipes. When I say robots, probably a bit crude, it’s more of a cable with cameras on it, and they put them down through pipes through which people can’t go, of course. Normally what happens is someone has to sit there and watch that video to find all the cracks and all the defects and things like that, that could be quite problematic. Now what we can do is say, okay, tell the AI what a crack looks like or what the different types of defects are and then get it to view the video in a few minutes rather than have some person sitting there spending hours working on that.

Dean:                    

There was a case in the Darwin Harbor actually where we were working with Northern Territory Fisheries where they were using a very similar process to identify fish because you don’t want to be sitting there getting the little cameras that you’ve got sitting in the harbor for days and and have someone watching it for days to effectively sit there with a clipboard marking the different types of fish that they see and count them. Now you’ve got the computer doing that. Scientists can do more meaningful work than just counting stuff, which is really the domain of science. What they’re doing most of the time unfortunately is sitting there counting things.

Chris:                     

Obviously, they’re being more productive in their workday thanks to this technology. I guess, if we bring it back to the intelligent workplace concept, at the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do with that as well. In terms of bringing AI into that, what does the productive work environment look like, in your opinion, once you’ve got an AI layer in there?

Dean:                    

What I’m seeing it mean is that in the past, the way that you interacted in digital system. You had your email, you have your intranets, you have your document stores, those types of things. If someone said, “Hey Dean, great work on that presentation that you did last month, can you send me the deck that you presented, I’d like to have a bit of a look over that?” Then in that instance, that’s a fairly simple ask really. What people are doing today is, in my case, I’d be like, okay, geez, that’s located somewhere on my OneDrive, blah, blah, blah. I’d probably do a search and think I’m pretty advanced, searching across your work. You’d do a search like that was called that data keynote or whatever it was, or AI keynote or something. I’d type that in and I’ll go, oh Geez, I’ve got five versions of it, which one was that one?

Dean:                    

If you look at this from an AI perspective, that question could be interrogated and say, okay, the intent of this question is to get a deck. They’ve given us all the right information, it was from the presentation that happened during this month. Based on the person who’s asking, we can see they attended that event or that meeting and so therefore it zeros in right onto the file. We can now augment and say have the bot so to speak, answer the question for us. I would say we’re not going to say have it actually answer on our behalf. What will happen is it’ll say, “Dean, I’ve got this document for you. Would you like me to send it? Is this the right one?” All I have to do is say, “Yes.” And it happens after a cursory check to make sure I’m not sending something that’s confidential, which is something you’d put into the AI as well.

Chris:                     

Yeah. Look, I liked that example you’re giving there because sometimes with AI people get a bit scared that robots are going to take over the world and all that sort of thing. They are our assistants and what you’ve just described there is a perfect example of that. Using the smarts of AI, combine that with the human element, which is you then saying, “Yes, I’m okay to send this document, go away and do it.”

Dean:                    

Yeah, exactly. Make no mistake, I don’t mind venturing into the world of people being concerned about AI and the way we should be concerned. I think about AI is probably more subtle ways than you would expect. Cutting back to your question, what we’re talking about here, what I’m really seeing is an augmentation of human capability as being the best experience today. Organizations like Microsoft are investing heavily into providing an augmentation. Quite often what people want is not really a conversation with another digital agent like a bot, but just something that when it has value to add, it will pop up and say, “Hey, I’ve got this for you. Do you want me to do it?” If that makes sense? I’m sure we’ve all been on the phone or been on websites and things like that and you’ve seen a bot pop up and says, “Can I help you?” It doesn’t take much for you to outsmart the logic of some of those things.

Chris:                     

Yeah. I’m with you there. Mate, it’s obvious that AI can really help us with productivity but I think there’s a bit of a bigger picture here too. It’s a really key element to today’s workforce and that is keeping engagement levels up. Even though AI is helping there with productivity, do you think that also has a bit of a flow on effect for engagement with the workforce as well?

Dean:                    

Yeah. We’ve got pretty strong statistics that show that there’s a heck of a lot of distractions and whenever there’s a distraction it takes a certain amount of time. I don’t know off the top of my head, that every time an email pops up and you’re moved from working within teams and you go and look at the email and the emails on a different subject that then takes you so long to get back into what you are doing. What we’re seeing is by not having this constant context switching can add massive productivity. I personally have massive challenges with focus because of the amount of digital disruption that we have on a daily basis.

Chris:                     

I’m with you, mate, I’m with you.

Dean:                    

If it was a case of me being able to say this is my productive time of the day and some of this is back on me. I think people, you can naturally fall outside of your organized behavior were you say this is the time where I’m going to be focused and this is the time when I’m going to answer emails and that sort of thing. You never know where opening that next email’s going to take you, so to be able to say, “Okay, I’m going to have my focus time in the morning.” The AI is going to be reading on my emails in the meantime, and then it’s going to come back to me and say, “Okay, while you were getting your job done, there was these things that you can answer yes or no to or I can do for you. I just need you to quickly read over it.” It’s really is that advanced PA type concept.

Chris:                     

I love it. It’s great.

Dean:                    

That is really where we’re going. We recently had our build conference in Seattle and there was a video that Satya Nadella showed at the very beginning, there were two parts that I think really give you a hint of what the future’s going to look like. One of them was a concept but built off real technology from a Microsoft acquisition called Semantic Machines where there really was that conversational experience with the AI in the morning that says, “Okay, this is what your day is going to look like. I see that someone’s been asking you about this thing that’s relating to that.” In that first 10 minutes a lot of stuff gets done that may or may not have been as well organized without that.

Dean:                    

There was another one where in a meeting instance there was that live trans coding of what everyone was saying and making meeting notes and things like that. They’re the sorts of things like that lateral one is real and is available in the very near future, if not today, and the tech is available at least. The first one is something just to keep an eye on.

Chris:                     

It’s excellent. I’m just wondering, just thinking big here, can my virtual assistant put in some time in my diary to allow me to go and play on the ping-pong table and another I can do in the office here is play Mario Cart. If I can handle those two things and they make me more productive, I’m on a winner.

Dean:                    

You know what? That’s a really funny thing. We’ve got a bot that we use internally, it’s Cortana and a lot of people have probably heard of Cortana, what Cortana does today. You can go to calendar.help. So just go onto browse and type in calendar.help and you can sign up for the trial. What this does is it allows you to organize meetings a lot more easily. If you’ve got lots of different parties, Cortana will go and have those conversations around, “Okay, these people have this time available.” We can’t see these people’s calendars so we’re going to have to ask them questions and does all of that for you. The funny thing was that only this morning it popped up with an email saying, “Hey, would you like some downtime? Do you need some focus time?”

Chris:                     

Yes I do.

Dean:                    

Yeah, totally. It’s like, yes, give me that Xbox time or that Dolphin time or whatever it is. Maybe we might not tell the truth, but Cortana says you’re doing a lot of work on presentation decks but can’t see any presentations coming up. It was quite interesting to see that the data that shows what an effective workforce looks like is being fed into the intelligence in these systems and allowing us to accommodate what is a highly effective and productive and focused and engaged sort of environment.

Chris:                     

Yeah, for sure.

Dean:                    

I think any sort of help I can get there, just because I’ve got so many interests and curiosities, would be really, really useful.

Chris:                     

I’m with you. I’m with you. It sounds awesome. Clearly AI can really improve our workplaces, but the thing is, it’s not like you can just wave a magic wand with this and hey presto, you’ve got AI in your workplace. Let’s keep it real here. What are some of the great challenges of actually getting AI into your workplace?

Dean:                    

Yeah. You may hear that AI requires a lot of data. I would say it’s not always about a lot, it’s about the quality. There’s two parts. I’m considering the data part as being more of a technical part and that is if you don’t have productivity systems that are well integrated and well connected, then it’s like having to take the personal assistant idea. It’s like saying here’s a personal system, but I’m not going to let them see my calendar, but they can see my emails. If you think as though you’re putting blinkers on the system that you trying to get to help you, that’s the effect you’re going to have. The big challenge for organizations is to ensure that when they’re deploying this technology, that they’re quite holistic in the types of information that’s available to direct it.

Dean:                    

In some instances this could be a privacy blocker as well. Organizations quite rightly should be considering privacy legislation, privacy of their workers, privacy of their customers. Other requirements say from government and things like that based on the environment they work in. These things are the sorts of, I suppose, more technical challenges that you’ve got to get around both from an implementation and a policy and maybe even the face of the company, the company’s reputation, I suppose.

Dean:                    

The other side is the more human one. This is something I get very, very philosophical about and that is we could have the perfect technology available today but no one would use it if it doesn’t come in the right form. I suppose it isn’t perfect. I used the wrong choice of words there. It could be capable of everything you could possibly want but if it doesn’t land with us as humans in a way that we can learn how to work with it, it is actually something that becomes a very big disruption and actually can be counterproductive.

Dean:                    

That’s what I’m seeing generally across the industry is that you’ve got to land new technology in a way that works well with the culture and the attitudes and the feelings and concerns of the people that are actually working. Otherwise, the adoption of this will not work very well and you won’t get the outcomes that you’re after.

Chris:                     

History is full of examples along those lines so I think you’re spot on there.

Dean:                    

Yeah. It’s a bit of an arbitrary thing that I’m saying but the audience is listening. You can take what you want from that and make that work in your environment. You’ve got to look at the people around you and say, “Okay, how are these people going to be working with it?” That’s why I’m a big fan of not that bot concept where you say, okay, the answer to the question that you asked, you’ve got to go and talk to this particular bot that knows those questions. Well that’s in many respects like bringing in a new person into the organization who no one knows and doesn’t turn up to any of the team meetings and doesn’t turn up to the parties, you know what I mean? It’s not going to work very well. That augmented approach where the systems jump in, when they’ve got a high degree of confidence they’re able to help, it is a really smart approach, if I was to prescribe an approach at all.

Chris:                     

Mate, I’ve just got one last question for you. One of the things I personally struggle with is separating the Hollywood version of what AI looks like in the future, Iron Man’s Jarvis or Will Smith’s VIKI, and with what the reality is. Can you give me a more realistic opinion of where you think AI is going and what maybe on offer for us in the not too distant future?

Dean:                    

Yeah. I think science fiction is modern philosophy. I think there’s a heck of a lot of cues that you can take. I’ll give two examples of science fiction movies that aren’t specifically AI related but if you look at it, you will see that it could equally work as AI in the storyline. What I’m really getting at is if you look at science fiction as these depictions of the future, sometimes it’s very explicitly AI. You look at, I, Robot or you look at Terminator and things like that, which are in some cases quite negative predictions, that there are certain cues that you can take from those. Sometimes it’s science fiction that isn’t using AI that actually provides a prediction that you think about.

Dean:                    

I think one is Minority Report and so there is a few aspects of that. A lot of people would refer to Minority Report from the perspective of the holographic interface that he’s using towards the beginning. Yeah. That stuff is coming. I think holograms in a context of an interface that pops up at a fixed location, like in that movie, if I remember it correctly, isn’t probably what you’re going to see. It’s going to be more of a case of yes, people will have more augmentation built into devices, whether it be glasses, things like HoloLens.

Dean:                    

If you look at HoloLens version two, it’s getting more refined. Wait until version three or four what we’re going to be at. Having that mixed reality, that augmented reality is going to be something that’s going to pop up more and more.

Dean:                    

There’s another part of Minority Report that I think is really, really interesting. That is, in the movie the storyline is referring to these three psychics. Now if you just replace the idea of psychics and say that this is some sort of predictive AI, then that is a mind blown prediction right there. That is really close to where we’re at at the moment. Pushing aside philosophical discussions on whether or not we have freedom of will or all that sort of stuff, if you could get enough information, could you predict moments before something bad was going to happen, who was going to do it and where they are? That’s pretty profound.

Dean:                    

The other one is, it goes back a bit, the movie called Gattaca, or story called Gattaca. It was more about genetic engineering and genetic profiling. If you remove that and say, okay, we’ve got a social profile of an individual, we’ve got a professional profile of an individual. They’re posting everywhere, they’re going, they’ve opted into Facebook checking in every location in real time and following … Or something like that. If you look at it from that perspective, you’ll start to generate sort of profiles of individuals and this is that scary set zone, I suppose, that I’m touching on here. Once you look at that from an insurance perspective or whatever, and I know insurance companies, it’s really trying to keep away that aspect at this stage because I think it could be considered.

Chris:                     

Big Brother.

Dean:                   

Yeah, yeah. I think they’ve realized that the community doesn’t really like this really detailed profiling.

Chris:                     

Not quite ready for it.

Dean:                    

Yeah. Yeah. If you look at it in other contexts that it’s already happening. Like people being pre-profiled before they apply for jobs and things like that. I think if you look at the not too distant future and you take cues and don’t take them as literally, you look at generically what’s happening. I think if I was to say, “Where are we going?” What we’re going to have is a more and more augmenting life where as people are interacting in their physical world, they will gain extra insight into what’s happening at the right time that could be useful information.

Dean:                    

It could be as simple as your bot, whether it be Alexa or Siri or Cortana or something else saying to you, “The train is late, feel free not to rush.” It could be as simple as that. This stuff will happen in these little, little small amounts. Then as we start to immerse ourselves more and take our eyes away from the screens and our pockets and start the focus more on screens that are on our faces, maybe it’s going to be even more transparent and immersive. If you can just imagine when you’ve got a meeting rather than having to look down at the GPS, or look at Google Maps, or Bing apps or whichever, you’ve actually got the arrows superimposed on the ground for you to follow. That’s really, really easy things to imagine that are starting to happen right now.

Chris:                     

Maybe I could one day follow my dream and have my own Iron Man helmet then?

Dean:                    

I don’t think it’s that far away. I’m not too sure about the structural integrity that sci-fi steel or whatever it is that I think … The thing needs to be extremely strong. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I think some of the other stuff, possibly.

Chris:                     

Magnificent stuff, mate. I’ve really loved talking to you today. You’ve got some great insights into the world of tech and where we’re heading with AI and how that comes back into the intelligent workplace, it’s fascinating stuff. I just want to say thanks very much for your time today because it’s been fantastic and all the best for a your inquisitive future.

Dean:                    

Thank you very much, Chris. It’s been a privilege. Yeah. Thank you very much.

Chris:                     

Cheers mate. We’ll talk soon.

Dean:                    

You have a great day.

Chris:                     

Thanks for joining me on the Intelligent Workplace podcast brought to you by Live Tiles. If you have any feedback or want to suggest a guest for a future show, email podcast@livetiles.nyc. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you next time.

 

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