Kevin Scott of Microsoft Hopes Artificial Intelligence Will Help His Hometown – The Wall Street Journal

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  • April 17, 2020
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Alexandra Wolfe

The Wall Street Journal

[email protected]

April 17, 2020 12:02 pm ET


chief technology officer, Kevin Scott, is humming Mozart’s “Sonata facile,” a melody that he recalls hearing in “Looney Tunes” cartoons. A computer could easily learn to play it, he says, but such a rendition probably wouldn’t elicit an emotional response from a listener. “It’s not about the notes; it’s about this connection…with the audience,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s going to be possible with a machine.”

Mr. Scott, 48, has been working on artificial intelligence for most of his working life. He is acutely aware of its limitations but more interested in its potential benefits—such as helping to combat the new coronavirus. Microsoft worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get an AI-powered diagnostic bot on the CDC website to help people assess their symptoms online. He has also helped make Microsoft’s supercomputing infrastructure available to research labs to try to accelerate the development of therapies for Covid-19.

On the weekend that we speak, Mr. Scott and his 11-year-old daughter are at home in Los Gatos, Calif., working on a lower-tech prevention tool: sewing masks to donate to hospitals. It’s a long way from Gladys, Va., a town on the outskirts of Appalachia where he grew up. His new book, “Reprogramming the American Dream,” recently published by HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by

News Corp),

argues that artificial intelligence shouldn’t be just a tool for elite technology companies but a means of uplift for rural areas, like his hometown, that could use it to create jobs and industry.

People in rural America ‘are ingenious and industrious.’

“I don’t think that we should be thinking about people in rural or middle America as folks who need to be defended from the changes that technology is going to force on them,” he says. “They are ingenious and industrious,” he adds, and “the process of technology creation is going to be better with them involved because they will see problems that are worthy of being solved.”

Mr. Scott remembers seeing his first computers on store shelves as a teen in the nearby town of Lynchburg. They were “the most fascinating things I had ever seen in my life,” he says. He taught himself to program. Most of his family worked in construction, but one of his grandfathers had an appliance-repair business, and Mr. Scott would watch, fascinated, as his grandfather fixed household items such as toasters and coffee makers.

Mr. Scott’s parents insisted that he go to college. After earning a B.S. in computer science at the University of Lynchburg, he earned a master’s degree in the subject at Wake Forest University and started a computer-science Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. He didn’t get his doctorate, but he did meet his future wife there through a personal ad on the website of the Onion, the humor magazine.

In 2003, Mr. Scott got a job at Google, working in its ad and search businesses. He became head of engineering of AdMob, an advertising platform on mobile devices that Google later bought, then head of engineering at LinkedIn, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2016. In 2017, he became CTO of Microsoft, studying engineering problems and coming up with new technology ideas for the company.

‘It can be the difference between hunger and sustenance.’

Mr. Scott is particularly interested in using AI to improve life in rural and working-class communities. A few years ago, Microsoft started a program called FarmBeats that uses AI to enable data-driven farming; it was recently tested in rural India. Researchers built machine-learning tools using historical weather and hydrology data. When it was time to put seeds in the ground, farmers would get a text message. The 3,000 farmers who participated in the study saw their crop yields increase by 10% to 30%, Microsoft says. That “is a very, very big deal,” says Mr. Scott. “It can be the difference between hunger and sustenance.” The company is now testing these AI technologies on Microsoft’s research farm in rural Washington state in hopes that the tools can be used more widely in the U.S.

Traveling around the country, Mr. Scott has been encouraged by the growing number of entrepreneurs using cutting-edge technology. On a recent trip to Memphis, Tenn., he met with an agriculture startup using drones to deliver precise amounts of fertilizers and chemicals where they are needed to avoid waste and runoff.

Last year, he went back to his Virginia hometown and visited friends who have automated their businesses to make them more globally competitive. He thinks these technological improvements, such as using 3-D design tools to create precision plastic parts for theme parks and defense contractors, will lead to more advanced and widespread machine-learning tools in the future.

Mr. Scott wants AI to provide rural communities with better education and health care. He worries about the day when his 90-year-old grandmother, who lives alone, can no longer drive herself to the store or the pharmacy. Her central Virginia home is too remote, he says, to call a cab or use a ride-hailing app—but soon, he hopes, an autonomous delivery drone will be able to pick up her dry cleaning and drop off her prescriptions.

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If she were to fall ill, technology could help too. Mr. Scott cites a Stanford University study published in the journal Nature Medicine last January reporting that AI could perform as well as a cardiologist in detecting and predicting irregular heartbeats in cardiac patients. Someone like his grandmother, who lives far from a cardiologist’s office, could wear a device and be monitored from home. “There aren’t enough cardiologists in the world to constantly read heart data from hundreds of millions or billions of smart devices looking for signs of illness,” he writes.

Even in his spare time, Mr. Scott works on small-scale AI projects. He is currently building what he guesses is his fourth or fifth coffee maker from scratch: His vacuum-siphon machine looks like an old-fashioned Victorian steam contraption but incorporates AI that recognizes a user and asks if he or she might like their favorite macchiato. The AI components, he says, were inexpensive and easy to assemble; the hard part was building the steam boiler.

Mr. Scott knows that some fear that these new technologies may have unhappy consequences, such as the post-apocalyptic “Terminator” movies in which AI turns on humanity. But he hopes more people will instead embrace a “Star Trek” perspective on AI, as embodied by the open-minded and heroic android Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”—a vision of the future in which AI “abolishes scarcity and lets people fully explore their own interests and curiosity and fundamental human nature.”

Write to Alexandra Wolfe at [email protected]

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