July 2017

Volume 32 Number 7

[Don't Get Me Started]

Live and in Concert

By David Platt | July 2017

David PlattI just got back from Build 2017 in Seattle. The live convention business took some serious knocks during the recession, but Build sells out within minutes, even though all of its content is available online. There’s just something special about direct human-to-human interaction with the people who build the software that drives our professional lives, something that no telepresence can ever duplicate. It’s the ultimate geek contact high. In no particular order, here are my impressions:

Microsoft should build an automated buzzword bingo game into the conference’s smartphone app. For example:

Keynote speaker (droning): “We proactively empower your strategic cyber-aggregation …”

Attendee (leaping to feet, waving phone): “BINGO!”

That would be an impressive demonstration of Microsoft’s new Cognitive Services, especially discerning among the differing voices and accents of the various speakers. Is it smart enough to deduce new buzzwords from context? Just make sure you give away a killer prize like a HoloLens, instead of a leftover Lumia phone.

Speaking of which, I was glad not to see Microsoft wasting time on another me-too phone. The conference’s scheduling app ran on Android and iPhone, but not on whatever Windows phones still survive, which shows that Microsoft has accepted the market’s judgment. To paraphrase John Prine’s classic song: “Microsoft, Microsoft, you have no complaint. You are what you are and you ain’t what you ain’t.” To which I add, the company is wise to finally realize it.

Microsoft highlighted its augmented/mixed/virtual reality (A/M/VR) solutions, which I found fascinating. The price of hardware is falling, and support is now built into the OS. I think A/M/VR is about to break out of its gaming niche market. But after I tried a few demos, I can confidently report that it hasn’t yet reached the level of improving the looks of an ugly blind date (of any gender or preference). You still need alcohol for that.

Microsoft is once again trying to launch pen computing with gestures, this time with the Ink Interface in the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update. The company has been trying this since at least the 1991 Professional Developers Conference (held just down the hill at the 5th Avenue Theatre), at which it released the beta of Windows 3.1. I remember drinking with some programmers from the United States Navy, who said, “Does Microsoft seriously think the admiral is going to learn gestures? The admiral already knows the only gesture he needs, which is (crooking finger), ‘Come here, ensign, and fix this crap.’”

One Microsoft booth featured a whiteboard asking for attendees’ comments: “If we could fix just one thing immediately, what would it be?” I wrote, “My hemorrhoids.” I wonder how that did in triage.

As always, I interviewed as many attendees as I could, getting their take on today’s industry. A few recognized my name from my badge. Many recognized this column when I mentioned it: “Oh, you’re that genius/idiot?” But not one attendee recognized me by my picture on the page. I have less hair in person, and more of it’s gray. I think I need a new one.

I always enjoy hearing Harry Shum, director of Microsoft Research (MSR). MSR has now developed artificial intelligence (AI) to the point where it’s easier to use than not. You don’t have to be an AI programmer. Just hand it some data sets.

I find this more than a little scary. One keynote demonstration showed cameras surveying a mock construction site, automatically recognizing people and tools, and objecting when the wrong guy picked up a jackhammer. Satya said in his keynote, “We have to use this power for good and not evil.” True that. But even stipulating that Microsoft will be universally good, will everyone to whom it gives the toolset be good? I have a hard time imagining that. As I wrote in my January column (msdn.com/magazine/mt793276), “… men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.” Skynet, anyone?

Our new AI will keep getting better and better, without any additional coding, as it gains experience. That means that we’ve crossed a fundamental watershed. I’m not sure we recognize this, as an industry or as a society. Where is this going to take us? I can only defer to Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote in his introduction to “2001: A Space Odyssey”: “It is important to remember that this is a work of fiction. The truth, as always, will be far stranger.”

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.

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