Nadella was speaking at Microsoft's .ai conference in Bengaluru on Monday, where he was joined by former UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani and, later, Flipkart CEO and co-founder, Binny Bansal, who announced that Microsoft Azure will be Flipkart's exclusive public cloud.
Before that though, Nadella and Nilekani talked about the Aadhaar, and Nadella praised the UID design, and the concept of India Stack, saying that the platform opens a lot of possibilities for companies to make products that cater to consumer needs.
"It is pretty tremendous, how it got started," he said. "But now with the speed at which you are able to scale it, it is comparable to any other Internet startup."
"We were very fortunate that two different governments, of very different political persuasion, both supported it," Nilekani replied. "We actually thought, how do we layer API on it. The initial API was for authentication, and then we built an API for KYC, and a great example is what Mukesh Ambani has done for Reliance Jio. It was possible only because of eKYC, so it's actually a source of competitive advantage. The same technology has saved the government about $5 million (roughly Rs. 33.4 crores) by reducing waste."
"We also designed it to be an electronic signature, you can sign a document using the Aadhaar, and on top of that, the government is launching something called a Digital Locker," he added, "So all the financial guys will add financial documents, and so on. We also built the Unified Payments Interface, and on top of that, the Prime Minister launched the BHIM application."
At this point, Nilekani asked Nadella how Microsoft would collaborate with the India Stack, and Nadella responded the Microsoft would be keen to integrate it with various products. The company has previously talked about integrating Skype with Aadhaar to enable video conferencing with government officials instead of having to go to their offices, and this is a further extension of that idea; however, Nadella did not give any timelines on when these ideas would be implemented.
AI is the third runtime
After that, the conversation shifted to AI, which Nadella says is the third runtime. "The first was the OS, and then it was the browser, and the third runtime can be the agent," he said. "It knows you, it knows your work, and your world. That's what we are building with Cortana."
Flipkart's Bansal, however had a question about artificial intelligence. "When I was a student in IIT, there was a course on AI, which no student wanted to take. What's changed now?" Bansal asked.
Nadella however believes that the pervasive availability of cloud infrastructure has made AI a viable prospect today. "With AI, on a human level we can now do human speech recognition, image recognition, and it's because of the fact that you have the cloud. That's really taken off for us even in India," said Nadella.
"That's because with the cloud, we have near infinite computing resources, and that, coupled with improvements in algorithms have really pushed things forward," he added.
At the same time, Nadella cautioned against an excess of hype around AI. "I think that we've only gotten started, we've found a ladder and taken the first few steps," he said. "I think it's the right ladder though we're not talking about a general intelligence, and if we can avoid too much hype around the subject, then we won't see the AI winter again."
Augmented Reality is the ultimate computer
Nilekani also asked Nadella about the future of platforms, and Nadella's first two answers were the cloud and AI. He said that he is also very hopeful about augmented reality, which he sees as a spectrum ranging from augmented reality all the way to virtual reality.
"The third one will take a little more time but I'm very excited about augmented reality," said Nadella. "It will be all through from virtual reality to augmented reality. The first time I put on the Hololens was to see something that was built for medical education. A first year anatomy class in Cleveland is being taught with Hololens."
Nadella then remarked that if he had a tool like Hololens when he was studying to become an electric engineer, then he would have had a much better understanding of the concepts he was trying to learn.
"Augmented reality is perhaps the ultimate computer," said Nadella, "and the difference between AR and VR is just a dial of the opacity. The user will be able to decide if they want to see the real world and interactively work, or if they want their full field of vision to be the computer."