AI for Humanity

Interview with Lila Tretikov, Deputy CTO at Microsoft.

Lila Tretikov is Deputy CTO at Microsoft. She shares her thoughts on drawing more women into tech, and why imagination is our most powerful tool in creating the future.

For over 175 years, the people at ZEISS have asked the question: How can we challenge the limits of imagination? In celebration of that vision, ZEISS has partnered with thought leaders and great minds from around the globe for ZEISS Beyond Talks, giving them centerstage to speak about their own work, visions, passion and issues that are affecting our world moving forward.

ZEISS Beyond Talks

Interview with Lila Tretikov, Deputy CTO at Microsoft.

Some years ago Forbes voted you among ‘The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women’. What can you say about the importance of female role models in tech?

When I started out in working life, I didn’t realize how important it is to have role models. Now I’ve probably coached more than 100 women during my career. It’s helpful for people to know that there is somebody else who has gone through similar challenges to their own, and who has made some headway in their life.

My biggest gratitude goes to the women who came ahead of me. We’ve had centuries of women doing amazing things, but not being recognized very deeply for them. Without these women, my life as I know it would not be possible. It would be very different indeed.

I think it’s really important for woman to see the achievements of other women. This is critical right now in computer science, where we have fewer women entering the field than we did some 20 years ago. It’s a challenging situation.

We need to create an environment where people are excited enough to join the field – even if there is a risk. I’ve taken risks when I’ve changed disciplines or moved countries, and I highly recommend doing so. We all have a moment in our life where we feel we know something like the back of our hand. That’s exactly when you should take a risk and do something new.

I think it’s really important for woman to see the achievements of other women.

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ZEISS Beyond Talks –
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"ZEISS Beyond Talks – The Podcast” takes you on a journey by capturing important milestones and by talking to leading scientists, renowned artists and ZEISS experts from around the world. All of them address the question: How can we challenge the limits of imagination?

What are some of the things you find most exciting in tech right now?

The most powerful opportunity in front of us today is bringing biology, computer science, chemistry and physics together in the area of health. This is now the most promising frontier in technology.

We’re learning how molecules behave, and we’re applying artificial intelligence to this. If we can do it at scale, then we can solve some really complex problems. It will help us with immunology, for example, by understand how to create compounds and medicines to solve some of the world’s most challenging disease problems.

We’re basically decoding our own bodies and increasing our ability to reprogram them. This is cutting-edge tech and I’m really excited about it.

‘Cutting-edge’ is a term we often hear associated with technology – what does it really mean to you?

Many people think of cutting-edge technology as the latest camera or other gimmick that we can buy. But for me it’s really describing science that is too early to productize. Making the transition between science and an actual product – that’s cutting-edge.

It could be in climate science and how we’re going to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. Or it could be in AI and figuring out how we’re going to embed intelligence into the world around us, and make it affordable and helpful to humans.

In the future, every company will be a technology-first one. I think almost all disciplines are going to rely heavily on technology. Whether somebody is a writer or a scientist, they’re going to need technology to do their work. There are huge positives to this, but of course we need to be mindful of the potential downsides too.

How do you see technology helping us with work-life balance?

When we talk about work-life balance – about making time for yourself and your family – we really need to acknowledge the role of technology, because it can be both a positive and a negative. As much as all these wonderful digital tools allow us to be productive, we also see increases in cognitive load, distress, dissatisfaction and disruption.

As technology makers, one of our goals needs to be a reduction in the cognitive load. When we talk about helping people to be more effective, it’s really about helping them take away the noise, the disruption and the menial tasks. Right now we often serve technology, rather than technology serving us.

Artificial intelligence is an opportunity to change this – to have technology assist us more. This will free up time that we can use for inspiration, creativity and innovation.

The most powerful opportunity in front of us today is bringing biology, computer science, chemistry and physics together in the area of health.

How would the tech industry benefit if more creativity were encouraged?

I think it’s really important to blend different disciplines and mindsets to inspire creativity. A lot of the time in tech companies you may have incredible computer scientists with PhD degrees, but not a single person coming from a different discipline.

We need to co-create with the artists around us, because they can help with ideating the future. Take the futurist writer Jules Verne for example. He was imagining submarines 150 years ago – now they are a reality. Science-fiction literature is very important, because the writers and artists think outside of what technology can do today.

Take the famous Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Now we have the combustion engine and the car. He was going beyond what was possible at the time. It’s what we call design thinking.

It’s important to take these kinds of creative moments seriously, and then use technology and science to bring them into reality. It’s setting a very high bar, but it’s necessary because otherwise there is nothing to reach for.

Then business is critical, because without business whatever we invent is not going to take hold. It has to economically viable, and at the end of the day it also has to be responsible. We have to make sure it’s possible from the policy standpoint.

We need to co-create with the artists around us, because they can help with ideating the future.

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Please share some of your own imagination on what we can expect from the future.

It’s fascinating to think 100 years ahead, because we’re accelerating so much. If you had shown a cell phone to somebody 100 years ago, it would have been complete science fiction – even magic. Now we’re even talking about traveling through the cosmos and going to different planets. In the last 50 years we’ve made tremendous progress. We got to this point pretty fast, and now we’re moving even faster.

I think we’re going to continue reinventing the silicon- and mechanical-based technologies that we already have. But we’re also going to reinvent our bodies, as I described earlier. I think medicine is going to completely change for the better over the next 100 years, and allow us to fix health problems and cure diseases that we were not able to before.

I also have a lot of hope that humanity is smart enough to navigate in a positive direction that will help us to restore the earth. We can use AI in a way that is assistive to us, rather than destructive. Hopefully we have enough understanding of the world we live in to not direct this technology towards a negative outcome.

As long as we don’t succumb to our lower nature, I think we have a great future in front of us. There is a lot of work to do to solve all the problems we’ve created for ourselves, but if we push through and solve them then I think we have an incredible 100 years ahead. I’m really excited to see as much of it as I can.


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