The future of manufacturing: How Schneider and Microsoft are partnering to address the opportunities and challenges of artificial intelligence

This audio was created using Microsoft Azure Speech Services

Co-authored with Jeff Bullwinkel, Associate General Counsel and Director of Corporate, External and Legal Affairs for Microsoft Europe


History teaches us that when you’re in the middle of sweeping technology-driven change, the struggle to simply keep pace can make it hard to maintain perspective. This is the situation we find ourselves in now, with the rapid emergence of artificial intelligence (AI). Suddenly there’s great urgency to explore how businesses and society can realize the benefits of AI while simultaneously grappling with the wide range of issues it has raised—issues like the future of employment and how we can preserve individual privacy and protect public safety. To do all this in a smart and balanced way requires a long-term view of what the decisions we make now will mean for the future.

This is something that is probably a little easier to do at a company like Schneider Electric. One of the world’s leading providers of energy and automation digital solutions for efficiency and sustainability, Schneider traces its history back to the 1830s when it started as a pioneer of steel manufacturing in France during the height of the First Industrial Revolution. An innovator in industrial technology ever since, Schneider Electric is at the forefront of applying AI to help its customers drive efficiency, optimize processes, enable predictive maintenance, and much more.

And while Microsoft’s past doesn’t stretch quite as far back as Schneider’s, as a company at the forefront of the digital revolution of the last few decades and now committed to helping people and organizations realize the huge potential of AI, the company also understands the need to deliver technology driven change in a way that is responsible.

This shared history is one of the reasons that Schneider and Microsoft have been working together for the past few years to create AI solutions that can help manufacturing companies transform their operations. One result is a solution for the oil and gas industry that uses the predictive analytics capabilities of Microsoft AI services to pinpoint abnormalities in oilfield equipment and identify potential problems before they occur, even when the equipment is miles below ground. Called Realift Rod Pump Control, this solution is improving worker safety, increasing productivity and reduce maintenance costs and downtime.

Of course, the potential of AI extends beyond what it can do to improve manufacturing processes. AI is also opening the door to new tools and approaches for addressing some of humanity’s most urgent challenges, including sustainability and climate change. A key commitment for both Microsoft and Schneider, sustainability is also an important focus of our work together.

This is the reason why Microsoft and Schneider launched AI for Green Energy, an initiative that is focused on finding new ways to use AI to decrease consumption and increase energy efficiency. Created to accelerate the digital transformation of this sector and help European startups continue their AI development, the program will provide selected companies with access to technical and business expertise from Microsoft and Schneider Electric, along with the Inria laboratory, Sigfox, Elaia, Energize Venture, and France Digitale.

But this is just the start. At Microsoft and Schneider, we recognize that we have a responsibility to address important challenges that new technologies like AI creates.

Central to many of these challenges are questions of trust. Questions like how do we ensure that AI is designed and used responsibly? How do we ensure that everyone has access to it? And how will AI impact employment and jobs?

At both companies, we believe that building trust must begin with a human-centered understanding of AI that sees these technologies as powerful tools to augment human talents rather than as a substitute for human labor, creativity, judgment, and initiative. By enabling manufacturers to automate tedious and repetitive tasks, it will free workers to focus on areas where they can apply their knowledge and skills to solve problems and drive innovation.

Living up to this understanding of the role that technology should play in people’s lives will require an ethical approach to developing and deploying AI solutions. At Microsoft, we have adopted a framework of six principles—which include safety and reliability, privacy and security, fairness, inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability—that guide our work to build and implement AI solutions. Similarly, at Schneider, our “Principles of Responsibility” serve as an ethics and compliance framework for everything we do.

In addition to ensuring AI is used ethically, we must ensure that new technology is secure and respects privacy. At Microsoft and Schneider, we believe that AI systems in manufacturing should be designed so that personal data is used in accordance with GDPR and other applicable privacy practices and laws. To facilitate compliance with privacy laws, industrial AI solutions should track how personal data is accessed and used and include capabilities to ensure transparency and accountability.

Both companies also recognize that as AI becomes more important to manufacturing, we will need to develop new approaches to training and education so that people can acquire the skills to thrive in an AI enabled workplace. This is why Microsoft created its AI School program, opening its first AI School in Paris in 2018. At the school, students from a diverse range of backgrounds undertake a seven-month course to learn AI development skills followed by 12 months employment at a partner company working on AI issues. There are now 10 Microsoft AI Schools across France, with each graduate from the first cohort successfully securing a job. Similarly, Schneider’s Energy University and Virtual Training programs offer an alternative to traditional classroom learning that can help people already in the workforce gain the skills they need to fill good jobs in fast changing fields such as energy management and process automation.

Steps like these are important, but the issues at stake are much larger than our two companies can hope to address. Ultimately, the ethics of AI must reflect a broad social consensus about the principles and values that should govern how and when these technologies are used. To ensure that we have the policy frameworks in place in Europe and elsewhere to move forward with AI in a way that drives progress in manufacturing and fosters trust, it will take a much broader effort that includes leaders from government, industry, academia, and civil society. At Microsoft and Schneider, we look forward to working in close partnership across sectors to ensure that the benefits of AI are broadly shared.

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