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'Lifelong learning becomes the new normal'

Didier Ongena, CEO Microsoft Belgium ©Studio Dann

The breakthrough of artificial intelligence will radically change the competitive landscape in which companies or countries are active. 'We want to help Belgian companies in acquiring the necessary skills to enter the race', says Didier Ongena, CEO Microsoft Belgium.

'You can actually consider artificial intelligence as a totally new tool to tackle major social or organizational challenges', claims Didier Ongena. 'Even in the most diverse sectors, from environment to energy or healthcare.'

'So AI is not about creating computers that can imitate or even surpass human intelligence. It is about what I like to describe as sampling on scale: by drawing conclusions from historical data, AI can offer a lot of added value. We absolutely do not believe AI will ever replace human beings: it will be complementary to mankind.'

A golden mountain of data

'However, the implementation of many jobs can change thoroughly in the years to come. I suspect that we will have less need for hyper specialists, and that we will have to focus more on what I would describe as "hyper generalists". People who see the bigger picture in a company or a sector, and who can make a good synthesis.'

'Because today, we do already have the certainty that at a later stage AI will have an impact on all possible business activities and all possible functions. AI is obviously not a big bang story. Machine learning is slowly seeping in all industries. So companies have time to prepare themselves for it. And we try to assist them.'

According to Didier Ongena, too few companies realize that AI offers many opportunities for new business or competitive advantages.

A recent European study conducted by EY on behalf of Microsoft shows that 75 percent of the companies are already working on AI. 'But the growth potential is still gigantic', emphasizes Didier Ongena. 'Many companies are sitting on a mountain of data, but do little or nothing with it. And this, while we finally possess the algorithms and the computing power to work with that ever growing amount of data and can use it to acquire new insights.'

'Those algorithms are often open source. On top of that, the computing power has become very cheap and - thanks to the cloud - you can even purchase it tailor-made. So the ball is in the camp of the companies. They just have to organize their operational processes differently and find out where exactly machine learning provides them new added value.'

AI accessible for children and SMEs

Belgium is of course the land of the SME. How do you get those somewhat smaller companies, which often do not have enough resources or expertise, to switch to machine learning?

'There indeed is a solid challenge,' says Ongena. 'But let us not forget that the cloud has a very democratizing effect. In 2012, the price of a supercomputer was 5 million euros. Today, thanks to the cloud, you can buy the same computing power for just a few euros per hour.'

'So prices have decreased significantly and an SME does not have to invest a lot: it can really buy a tailor-made solution. We should especially persuade the SMEs and ensure that their employees can make the shift.' Ongena cannot emphasize it enough: now is the time for a cultural shift in our country, now lifelong learning has to become the new norm. People and businesses should capitalize on unique human capabilities such as creativity, collaboration, complex communication and curiosity, thay AI cannot mimic. 'It is essential to build digital skills. So we created Microsoft DigiKids to invite 10,000 young people to our offices for half a day and introduce them to the principles of coding and artificial intelligence. In addition, we also provide our own online training programs for free to our partners.'

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