Bing, bots and Build - the Meath man shaping the future at Microsoft
Published 21/04/2016 | 02:30
"I'm sorry, I can't use the word 'super'. I'm Irish."
Derrick Connell is talking to a group of nerd journalists in San Francisco about the future of Microsoft's plans in search and voice. But while colleagues and reporters liberally throw around tiresome Valley-speak superlatives ("awesome… amazing… really cool… so exciting"), Connell's Meath-based upbringing just won't let him do it.
"I do use the word 'Mom', but that's because we used it in Trim when I was growing up," he tells me later.
At this point, Connell is probably entitled to use whatever the hell flavour of English he wants. Over the last 12 years in Seattle, he has risen to become one of the company's most influential corporate vice presidents in his role as head of search engineering with Bing. As such, Connell may be the most senior Irish person in the top five multinational tech companies at present.
Most recently, he has been a central figure in planning Microsoft's next big online strategy: artificial intelligence. Online bots, says the tech giant, are going to be the next big thing in ecommerce and customer service. And Connell, along with Microsoft's head of applications and services, Qi Lu, was the one who helped convince Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella to build a new company strategy around such artificial intelligence.
According to Bloomberg's Dina Bass, the key decision around the software giant's strategy shift was taken on a two-hour flight from Silicon Valley to Seattle. "Connell showed him designs for new, AI-enhanced versions of the Outlook e-mail program and Skype," Bass wrote. "By the time the plane landed, Nadella decided it was the big strategic move the company needed."
But what are online bots? And what sort of effect will they have on ordinary users and businesses?
At its Build developers' conference in San Francisco, Microsoft showcased a bucketload of new tools to help companies build and customise artificial intelligence systems online to help with everything from ordering a pizza to booking a hotel room.
One of the demonstrations on stage involved a bot-made booking with the Westin Hotel Dublin within Skype. Not only did the bot make the reservation, but it also delved into the user's messages to organise a reunion with a Dublin-based friend.
"Some days I think there'll be a billion bots within a year," says Connell when I catch up with him after the Microsoft event. "But sometimes I think it might be five years. I spend a lot of time in China these days and the WeChat example there is interesting. You have 80-year-old women who would connect to their phone to get a train ticket. What used to be a real person at the end of that phone is now becoming a bot, so the human only needs to take care of 20pc of the traffic. I can see this developing quickly."
All of this is tied up with what Connell claims is a 'third wave' of computing and what his boss (Nadella) now calls 'Converstions As A Platform'.
"If you dissect the tech that's required to do conversation as a platform, there are a few aspects," says Connell. "It's conversational in that there's an aspect of understanding speech, knowing what people are saying including different dialects and understanding intent."
This is where Connell's Bing engineering team comes in. Conversations are complex strings of words, sounds, lilts and pauses. Trying to build an artificial system that can recognise, process and assign other functions to such utterances is beyond most conventional coding tasks, not to mention "the cloud based rendering user interface" that Connell is talking about.
But valuable lessons have been learned from Microsoft's research in search and voice, he says.
"We've been investing heavily in the things behind this, especially for search," says Connell. "It's a knowledge graph that we've been building for four and a half years. Our knowledge of the world has significantly improved. It's an exponential curve, not just for search, but for intent and understanding. The system needs to understand when my mom tells it that she's looking for a car parking space."
Despite its stated ambition, Microsoft's experience with bots has not been plain sailing. Its own experimental chatbot, Tay, had to be yanked offline earlier this year when it was gamed by mischief makers to repeat racist propaganda last month.
But what Microsoft wants to do now, says Connell, is to attract as many developers as possible to help build an intelligent ecosystem up. At its recent Microsoft Build conference in San Francisco, it unveiled plans for developer tools to make more advanced bots. These will be able to work with natural language and will be capable of integration into a number of platforms, including email, the web, Slack, Skype and Telegram.
Connell's main role is still connected to Bing, the search product that still has an underdog tag. He runs most of its constituent parts, from its design studio, animators and editors to its engineering team and developers.
"It's really diverse," he says of the 2,000-strong Bing-related workforce. "There are even people in Dublin who do work for Bing."
In Europe, Bing is regarded as a novelty, miles behind Google. But in the US, Bing is now a player. According to recent ComScore reports, it has around 21pc of the desktop search market there. This is a big turnaround from the days when Bing was costing Microsoft close to €1bn per quarter.
"Over the last the years, we have gotten it to competitive quality," says Connell. "I started in 2004 at its outset. At that point, no-one thought we could have a credible product compared to Google. But we targeted the top six or seven countries and spent a couple of years on that. Outside the US, we're still working on it. But in some of the bigger countries like the UK, we're close to it. Our market share in the UK is close to 11 or 12pc."
Much of Bing's progress comes through deals that Microsoft has struck such as those with Yahoo and Apple's Siri.
"The market is shifting," says Connell. "For any company that seeks a good partner for search engine, we make good economic deals. We're willing to be accommodating."
Not everything is growing at Microsoft these days. Any strategy it had of aggressively going head to head with Apple and Google in mobile phone ecosystems has been quietly distilled over the last 12 months.
This is apparent in the company's global mobile market share, which has sunk from over 7pc to below 5pc and continues to gall.
In his recent 'Build' keynote, Satya Nadella addressed the issue.
"For us, mobile first is not about the mobility of any single device, it's the mobility of the experience across different devices," he said.
But despite Microsoft's impetus with a Universal Windows Platform project that would see developers' apps transfer between PCs, tablets and Windows phones, the company's oft-repeated 'mobile first' philosophy looks a lot more bendable than it once was.
"My perspective is that Satya talked about conversations as a platform, almost entirely led by mobile," says Connell. "Conversations will be on mobile devices. Also, Internet Of Things devices will be important here too, like having a Sonos in your home that you can have a conversation with. The work that we're doing on Cortana will make this available through for any developer. And we know that the companion device may not be a Windows device. So a large part of the strategy is to be cloud-based so that we can make our services available on any endpoint device."
This pivot on Microsoft's mobile strategy is not the only note of caution from Microsoft's recent Build conference. Nadella went out of his way to raise issues around machine ethics as a preface to the wider conversation around artificial intelligence.
"All technology that we built has to be more inclusive and respectful," he said at the San Francisco event. "We want to build technology that gets the best of humanity and not the worst. Ultimately it is not going to be about man versus machine. It is going to be about man with machines."
This may be an acknowledgement of teething difficulties with online AI system that Microsoft has tried, such as Tay. Or it may be an echo of fears raised by industry grandees, such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking about giving machines ever deeper levels of artificial intelligence only to risk the rise of genuinely dangerous robots.
Killer droids, though, are not on the immediate task list for Connell. For him, computing is moving in waves.
"The way I think about it is in three waves," he says. "You have the traditional PC desktop application wave which will continue for many decades in the future. That's been modernised with Windows 10 and that wave of tech will play out, with things such as intelligence and Cortana being relevant there. There's a second wave of internet and browser where search is the canonical power. That tech wave will also take advantage of things like Cortana. And then there's a third emerging wave which is the conversation as a platform. All of the partners want to get into that game. It will be interesting to see how fast they do."