This year I was fortunate enough to attend Microsoft’s annual “Future Decoded” event down at the ExCel conference centre in London. At Future Decoded, Microsoft lay out what they believe to be their technological focus for the next year, and by virtue of their sheer size, this tends to give some indication for the wider technology market as a whole. Accordingly, Isosec were keen to have someone attend in person, and I was lucky enough to get the chance.
Microsoft are of course a fascinating company, perhaps more so now than ever before. Although many would argue they’ve been through somewhat of a slump in the aftermath of their botched entry into the smartphone market, their more recent performance has been fairly staggering. In the last 3 years Microsoft’s share value has tripled, which for a company that is likely to soon reach the $1 trillion (yes, TRILLION) mark, is no mean feat. In fact, many would agree that under CEO Satya Nadella (whom I was lucky enough to attend a talk from), Microsoft have truly grown as a company, refining their many different products and rising towards the top spot (which they of course famously occupied for so many years) both quietly and gracefully.
The event itself was extremely well attended (arguably a little too well at times – but only for some of the smaller talks which quite literally spilled out with what I assume was unexpected interest), both from an attendee and exhibitor perspective. Numerous companies big and small were keen to show off the interesting ways they were utilising Microsoft’s now heavily cloud-focused technology, and countless demos and showcases really got across just how many different parts make up the tech behemoth that is Microsoft.
It was made clear from the start (even before it was announced, thanks to a consistent theme between the available talks), that the focus for the next year would be artificial intelligence (AI), and that this focus would be achieved through the use of their secondary focus; the cloud. AI is of course the top buzzword for tech right now (except perhaps blockchain…), but Microsoft were sure to demo their use of the famed concept just enough to reinforce the fact that this is not just another marketing gimmick, this is serious. From aerial vehicle mapping and improved car park management, to solar farm efficiency improvements and even fish detection, AI was at the heart of almost everything on display by both Microsoft and their partners, and it was almost always accompanied by Azure.
Azure, Microsoft’s cloud service that began life back in 2010, has really matured in recent years, and is now more than ever some serious competition (namely for Amazon’s AWS service, as well as Google’s Cloud Platform). But what I hadn’t realised prior to this event was just how integrated it was in everything Microsoft (and beyond). From cloud-based Active Directories and Kubernetes compatible hosting, to machine learning run on virtual hardware capable of scaling to levels incomprehensibly larger than the average hosting companies on-premise stack, Microsoft have done a fantastic job of baking Azure into everything that they do, and I firmly believe they will reap the rewards from doing so.
Onto the talks then! Future Decoded put on some fantastic keynotes, with a great balance between technological (around both its own in-house variety and offerings from the wider industry) and non-technological. Satya Nadella, whom I was incredibly excited to see live, reaffirmed Microsoft’s focus on AI and Azure, whilst UK CEO Cindy Rose put forward plans for their AI academy, and detailed how they were taking steps to progress the creation of modern technology talent, especially inside the UK. In all honesty, I’d be lying if I didn’t point to the talks by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Matthew Syed and the wonderful, in need of no introduction Michael Caine as having been my favourites, but that’s not to say I didn’t take away a fantastic amount from each and every keynote.
Up in the seminar rooms at Future Decoded, Microsoft UK CTO Michael Wignall gave an exciting talk on what he believes to be the tech trends that the industry will focus on over the next year (AI, mixed reality and quantum computing), which drew such a large crowd that it was repeated not once, but twice, still packing out the room on its third run-through. Although Wignall was quick to point out that his talk was in no way a guarantee of Microsoft’s direction, it was nevertheless an insightful look into the near future, and one that gave me a lot to think about, both for my own tech interests and Isosec’s in general.
In some of the more informal talks held in the four corners of the main exhibition hall, the huge software house SAP – who were a headline sponsor of Future Decoded – showed off one of their smaller endeavours in the machine learning space; a recycling app that could analyse the markings of plastic and direct the user on how and where to properly recycle them. This may well seem somewhat underwhelming from an event held by a company as big and innovative as Microsoft, but the difference here is that the solution in question is a real, working, publicly available and practical one, something that many of the alternative demos missed the mark on by a long way.
In-keeping with the more practical applications, Chilliblast had what may well have been my favourite of the smaller talks, where sales director Ben Miles showed off what may well be one of the only practical applications of VR in a commercial space that I have been hands on with; a disruptive method of virtual retailing. Ben described how they were enabling physically smaller businesses (the example given being a bespoke car customisation company with many high-end clients) to compete with much, much larger ones, by having virtual showrooms, where you could physically walk around your own car, seeing the potential modifications up close and personal. I was lucky enough to have a go of the demo afterwards and believe me, it was seriously impressive. Seeing VR being applied practical was truly a wonderful experience, and thinking of all the small, independent shop owners who might suddenly be able to showcase a stock of a thousand items from their tiny storefronts made for a wonderful thought.
Of course, anybody who knows Isosec will know that we live and breathe the NHS and for that reason I was very excited to check out the stands put on by Great Ormond Street Hospital and, closer to home for my Liverpool-born-self, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. Great Ormond talked with great pride about their utilisation of machine learning on their huge volumes of data in ways that improve patient care in very real ways, and Alder Hey allowed me on their huge, god-knows-what-inch interactive touchscreen display, which felt like a real innovation in remote collaboration technology. A real highlight from me though was to see Great Ormond’s re-creation of its own building in Minecraft, a fantastic idea that helps introduce children to where they might be spending long periods of their lives in a way that they find fun, and more importantly, unintimidating.
When I wasn’t attending keynotes, talks and seminars, or chatting with our customers and partners at Future Decoded, I was just one of the many, many people keen to have a go of Microsoft’s HoloLens product. HoloLens, a mixed reality headset that empowers people to make more informed decisions or get remote assistance in an immersive and incredibly valuable way, was most definitely the focus of the more hands-on portion of the event. From looking through a (prosthetic) leg to see where veins and bones were prior to making an incision, to being instructed on how to disassemble an engine that I’d never seen before, I was able to get truly hands on with a product that I genuinely believe will be game changing, even if I do believe it to still be very much still in its infancy right now.
All in all, I was able to take away a great deal from the Future Decoded event. From a more traditional sense, cloud computing – not only from a hosting perspective, but from what is now arguably the more important artificial intelligence area – is now at the forefront of my mind more than ever, and from a more futuristic side of things, mixed reality and immersive assistance technologies has never seemed more important. Listening to stories on the NHS stands of surgeons working with the patient’s vital signs pinned to the corner of their headset, and thinking about the possibility for them to patch in an expert on the other side of the world to get a second opinion whilst show them exactly what they’re seeing right there and then, was truly extraordinary. More so than ever, it’s become obvious from Future Decoded 2018 that technical innovation is going to be exponentially beneficial to the NHS in just about every way, and that is exactly what Isosec is striving for every day.