July 2018

Volume 33 Number 7

[Don't Get Me Started]

Building Better Meetings

By David Platt | July 2018

David PlattI've had some time to digest events at the Build 2018 conference. Here's what impressed me most, as Microsoft continues its transition into an artificial intelligence (AI) company.
The best demo, as usual, involved Scott Guthrie. To demonstrate the Intelligent Edge of the Cloud, a speaker trained Microsoft's AI photo recognition service with images of ScottGu. He then downloaded and ran that model on a Raspberry Pi. The tiny, cheap computer with its built-in camera could now recognize the real ScottGu onstage, red shirt and all. That drew cheers, some of them mine.
The best forward-looking idea came when a speaker demonstrated voice commands, saying: "Hey, Cortana, set up a meeting right now with the smart building team," and the AI voice came back, "Sure thing, you are all free now." Then the speaker said, "Find me a conference room with a Surface Hub," and by golly, one just happened to be open. The meeting was duly scheduled, and the participants notified.
The attendees around me rolled their eyes -- what are the odds that the entire team and a room would be free on such short notice? But I think Microsoft has stumbled onto something immensely valuable. The company simply has to re-orient the application of their AI to meetings.
We don't need or want meetings made easier to schedule. We already have way too many. ("Where the minutes are kept and the hours are lost," right?) We need fewer meetings, with fewer attendees and a tighter focus. Imagine Microsoft Meeting Blaster™, a new skill for Cortana.
Suppose whenever anyone tried to schedule a meeting, Cortana would cross-examine him about the agenda: "Are you sure you need a meeting on that topic? Tell me the goals you hope to accomplish. Did you see what so-and-so just published about this topic? There, I've sent you the link. Read that first, then come back if you still think you need a meeting." The scheduler would have to do his homework before Cortana would let him distract busy people.
Another huge problem: Because the size of a meeting indicates a leader's importance, managers invite way too many people for them all to be productive. Invariably you have two or three guys talking and nine guys checking their phones and rolling their eyes, praying for Scotty to beam them out of there. Suppose Microsoft's AI could monitor a meeting via cameras and microphones, producing hard data on that meeting's value for each attendee. Maybe that ammunition could help Cortana resist the encroachment of meetings on their productive time.
Cortana could insist that the scheduler justify each attendee: "You're inviting Bob? The last time Bob came to a meeting on this topic, he spent 30 seconds talking, 150 seconds actually listening, and the remaining 97 minutes yawning and playing Solitaire. And I see they're serving his favorite three-bean chili for lunch that day, and the windows in the room I reserved don't open. I'd skip him if I were you." Or, better yet: "The last time Alice got dragooned into a meeting on this topic, approximately 45.3 seconds contained content that was valuable to her. Convince me this meeting will be different before I let you bother her."
Once a meeting starts, the biggest problem is keeping participants on topic. Think of all the self-indulgent storytelling and tangential screeds you've had to sit through while your deadlines ticked away. Suppose Cortana could listen in and drop the hammer on meeting hogs: "[Referee's whistle] Hey, Charlie. Back on topic, please." "But Cortana, I was just ..." "Right now, please. Don't make me bust you back to Level Zero on Candy Crush." Because Cortana doesn't depend on the leader's evaluation to keep her job, she could slap down even senior miscreants.
How could you train such an AI model? Easy: Unleash Microsoft's AI to do what it claims it can do -- recognize facial expressions and body language. Smiles, nodding, thumbs-up gestures (automatically adjusted for differing cultures, of course) -- all good. Eye rolls, yawns, silently mouthing "[Expletive] this [expletive]" (in whatever language), taps and drags on phone screens indicating Solitaire, outright snoring -- not so good. Now that's using AI to benefit society. That would make Microsoft a boatload of money and guarantee a standing ovation at Build 2019. I'm looking forward to seeing ScottGu demonstrate it.


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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