How will Satya Nadella handle Microsoft’s ChatGPT moment?


Many who have met Satya Nadella like him. For those who haven’t, a skim through his autobiography endorses the view that the boss of Microsoft is an intelligent, decent sort of person. He is unassuming, with a passion for cricket. He is a listener, who encourages employees to share their personal as well as professional dreams. He writes about Buddhism, but not in a new-agey way. His son was born with cerebral palsy, so Mr Nadella seeks to understand suffering. At times, there is something gleefully Tigger-like about him, when he can barely contain his excitement about Microsoft’s new technologies. He describes one such “eureka moment” the first time he put on one of the firm’s HoloLens mixed-reality headsets and, thanks to a live feed from NASA’s Mars rover, visualised himself walking on the red planet. It was, he wrote, a glimpse into the future. “The experience was so inspiring, so moving, that one member of my leadership team cried.”

Once again Mr Nadella is giddy with “this-is-the-future” euphoria. On January 23rd Microsoft announced its third investment, estimated at $10bn, in OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT. The advanced artificial-intelligence (AI) tool lets users ask questions and get human-like, often funny responses. In the past few months it has grabbed headlines and become part of the zeitgeist. In no time, the wizardry of the technology, however error-prone, has led to its portrayal as a potential Kodak moment for Alphabet-owned Google, a boon to cancer research, the end of coding as you know it, and a nail in the coffin of the exam essay. In other words, it’s the tech hype cycle on steroids.

At the risk of sounding churlish, it is worth noting that seven years after Mr Nadella’s HoloLens epiphany, the whole mixed-reality buzz at Microsoft has gone deathly quiet. HoloLens was reportedly affected by the firm’s 10,000 recent lay-offs. That said, ChatGPT is already so accessible and intuitive to use that it is hard to imagine it will be a flash in the pan. It is not difficult to see how Microsoft, with its strength in cloud computing and business software, could use OpenAI’s underlying GPT models to rejuvenate a whole range of products. And Mr Nadella, for all his mindfulness, burns with an ambition to restore the company to the pinnacle of tech innovation that it vacated with the onset of social media and the smartphone. Could this be his moment?

Microsoft’s share price suggests not. It has barely advanced since November 29th, the day before OpenAI publicly launched ChatGPT (save for a brief rally after Microsoft reported quarterly earnings results on January 24th that were a bit better than expected). Given the risks of an economic slowdown, which is cooling demand for Microsoft’s software and cloud services, investors have too many short-term concerns to pay much heed to Mr Nadella’s promises of AI-flavoured jam tomorrow.

Yet they shouldn’t underestimate his missionary zeal. He led Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, when Google was on a tear. He led its cloud provider, now called Azure, when it was an also-ran to Amazon Web Services, owned by the e-commerce giant. He has long nurtured a passion to leapfrog his west-coast rivals. That makes him impatient with AI research for its own sake. He wants it embedded in products that wow customers. Hence Bing, with a mere 7% of search queries in America, will shortly incorporate ChatGPT to wrestle share away from Google. GitHub, Microsoft’s coding tool, is using OpenAI technology in its Co-pilot product, aimed at accelerating the work rate of software developers. Microsoft is likely to overhaul products like Office and Windows with GPT technology, so that chatbots can take the drudge out of creating PowerPoints and Excel spreadsheets. As for the cloud, Microsoft benefits because OpenAI has built and trained its GPT models on Azure, and it can offer state-of-the-art chatbot services to Azure’s customers. The more they are used, the better they get.

Microsoft will not have the field to itself, nor will it be a winner-takes-all market. Among other cloud providers, Alphabet, for one, has foundational models that are more powerful than GPT. For now, though, its ability to compete is constrained. Alphabet, loathed by critics of surveillance capitalism, bears a big reputational risk if human-like AI amplifies the biases and privacy concerns of current consumer technology. It is under regulatory fire: a lawsuit filed on January 24th by America’s Department of Justice and eight states calls for the break-up of Google’s ad-tech business. Moreover, the cost of the average Google search is exceedingly cheap; adding ChatGPT-like searches, heavy on computing power, would raise it. As for Microsoft’s business-software competitors, such as beleaguered Salesforce, they are trying to cut costs and cannot hope to match Microsoft’s advanced AI investments, says Mark Moerdler of Bernstein, an investment firm.

First innings

In short, Microsoft has a valuable head start and Mr Nadella is loth to squander it. The big question, however, is not who will win. In these early days that would be like asking, at the dawn of the 19th century, who will come out top from the Industrial Revolution. It is more a matter of how well-equipped is any company to handle the potential implications of introducing technology that will do work previously done by humans, but with neither the ability nor the moral compass to check the reliability of its work. The risks of propagating errors or, worse, misinformation, are serious. So is the danger of societal backlash if knowledge workers feel their jobs are threatened—though if the technology succeeds, over the long term it is likely to be a boon to job creation.

Microsoft’s initial approach to the potential pitfalls is shrewd. Investing in OpenAI puts ChatGPT at arm’s length if something goes wrong. But eventually, with GPT infused in all of its products, it will bear a big responsibility for the outcome. In that case, the attention will focus on Microsoft’s own moral compass—and Mr Nadella’s human decency will be put to the test.

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