How has your career and outlook evolved over the years?
The first decade of my career was very technical in its focus. I was a research kind of person then. I wrote a lot of technical papers and got published.
Then came my reinvention. I was technically strong, but I started to recognize a need to understand the big picture. That is, how to take technical advances and create an impact in the real world.
So, I went back to school and did an MBA at Wharton (at the University of Pennsylvania.) I went into consulting and worked in a range of roles. Nowadays, I am focused on issues like responsible AI, ethics, and policy.
That brings us to your current role at Microsoft. Can you explain what a National Technology Officer does?
My role involves thinking about the next generation of technology – emerging topics that are beyond our current horizon. How will these impact not only our business and our customers, but also society as a whole? It is a technology-specific role with a national circle of concern.
I look at how Microsoft can help my country achieve its potential. How it can empower people, communities, and governments. The effects of technology go well beyond business. They impact individuals and society as well.
Tell us about your work as part of the Sensitive Uses Working Group of AETHER?
We look at the challenges that AI innovations can bring across the globe. It’s a matter of not just asking what AI can do, but what AI should do. There are situations when we need to pause and think about where we are heading and the consequences.
We have laid out six ethical principles for AI: fairness; reliability and safety; privacy and security; inclusiveness; transparency; and accountability.
By holding these principles up like a mirror, we set standards for the company and guidelines for our customers and partners.
Why did you join this group?
I was asked to join the effort and at first I declined. I believed I had just too much on my plate with all my other responsibilities. But then, the following weekend, I watched a documentary about how technology was used to interfere with the (2016) U.S. elections.
It made me realize that I had to contribute. It was just too important. Sometimes serendipity makes you realize that your day job is not enough. You are being called to do something that is above and beyond. And you must rise to the opportunity, no matter what.
You work across India, which is a massive and diverse nation. How important is it for Microsoft to pursue policies of diversity and inclusiveness globally?
Our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. To empower people, you need to have some understanding of their perceptions and backgrounds.
So, we need diversity and inclusion in our company to really have a shot at carrying out our mission. We also need to be inclusive. I am a pretty bold person, and I do speak my mind. It is not just a gender thing.
But as a woman, perhaps, and also as a former strategy consultant, I am pretty perceptive about what is happening in a room or in a team. Are people stressed? Are people getting on each other’s nerves? Or is somebody feeling that they are not being included? You must care and be courageous about calling that out.