Leader Talks: Microsoft Data & Intelligence head Adi Morun on AI, innovation, and Czechia

Microsoft is at the forefront of advanced technological developments boosting economic productivity and quality of life.

William Nattrass

Written by William Nattrass Published on 11.04.2023 17:00:00 (updated on 04.03.2024) Reading time: 12 minutes

Digitization is a cornerstone of modern economic development. Technologies making professional and private life smoother and more efficient can be the key to unlocking greater success for everything from large multinational companies to individuals.

Microsoft has been at the cutting edge of technological innovation ever since the company was founded almost five decades ago. It has been central to the digital transformation which has made profound changes to the way we work and live, and Czechia has become a focus for its development of even more advanced technologies. The Microsoft Development Center Prague, opened in 2016, employs more than 1,000 people. 

The central role of the Czech capital has been underlined by the new role of Adi Morun, formerly Chief Operations Officer for Czech Republic and Slovakia, who is now leading Microsoft’s Data and Artificial Intelligence business within Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa (CEMA).

Based in Prague and leading the adoption of AI solutions in over 100 countries, Adi sat down with Expats.cz to discuss Microsoft’s role in helping businesses and people grow by making the best possible use of digital solutions.

Can you tell us about your story, and about your new role?

I was born in Romania, but I moved to Canada with my family when I was young. I was educated in Canada, and I have two degrees; one in business and one in mathematics, hence the passion for data and AI. I’ve been working for Microsoft since I was in school through various internships, and I’ve been full-time for the past twelve years, eleven of them spent in Canada in a variety of roles.

I led the Azure Cloud business in Canada as we were first building it up. During that time, we launched our Canadian data center, which was the first major data center on the Canadian market at the time.

Then, my family and I decided to move to the EU; we wanted to provide our three kids with a great international experience by going back to our roots. My wife is also Romanian-Canadian, and we’re both avid readers of Expats.cz!

Prague is an amazing place to live, work, and build a life as a family. It’s also full of amazing opportunities from a business perspective, both for Microsoft and personally.

My new role focuses on scaling the adoption of Artificial Intelligence, which is built on decades of investment culminating right now with consumer adoption of AI technologies such as Chat GPT-4. AI unlocks innovation across industries, and we want to drive the use of new technologies throughout the region. In my role overseeing a larger area, I’ll be able to help shape specific industries’ adoption of AI.

What do you like about the Czech Republic as a working environment?

From a personal perspective, I’m impressed by the “living fundamentals” here: the healthcare, safety, amazing education with international schools, and a great standard and cost of living compared to Canada and other countries in Europe. It’s an amazing environment for a family. I’ve also been really impressed by the digital services, which in many cases are actually more advanced than in Canada.

From a business perspective, there are a few elements. First of all, there’s amazing technology adoption and innovation, due to really strong technical talent and a great start-up ecosystem. It’s some of the strongest not just in Europe, but globally. This means things can be built here and then exported, which you see in local companies that were created here before expanding internationally.

Prague cityscape. Photo: iStock / zorazhuang
Prague winter cityscape. Photo: iStock / zorazhuang

The strong technical background that underpins the society shines through; many people here seem to naturally be good at technical STEM pursuits. There’s a willingness to build great things locally and then share them with the world. There’s also an increasing willingness to bring in best practices from outside and incorporate them here, although maybe we could do even more to encourage this.

Are your teams in Czechia creating solutions that are going global?

Absolutely. We have a large development center here, one of the biggest in Europe, with more than 1,000 employees in engineering, product management, design and data science. Many of Microsoft's technologies including Teams, Azure, Security and even AI solutions like AI for Accessibility are built here and implemented all over the world. 

At the same time, there’s an incredibly rich start-up ecosystem; we work with over 150 start-ups in Czechia, some of which have scaled globally. They work with us because they see that we have the ability to help scale up their operations around the world.

How does your cooperation with start-ups work?

We have a local team dedicated to the start-up ecosystem, and we have a program called Microsoft for Startups - Founders Hub, providing three main things that start-ups get value from.

The first is access to global markets, leveraging our global sales capacity. The second is technical support, with early-stage funding to accelerate growth. Early-stage start-ups may not have the capital by themselves to invest, for example, in the Cloud Computing capabilities, powered by Azure, needed to build their solution. We can provide up to $150,000 as well as access to other technologies to help build their business.

The third thing we provide is a strong and diverse network of advisors. The Microsoft Mentor network is a global platform of mentors from various backgrounds across business and technology, helping advise on many topics from idea validation to fundraising.

We proactively work with other key players in the start-up ecosystem too, including the Start-Up World Cup Summit, Vodafone’s Idea of the Year event, and the Female Founders Academy.

How do you decide who will be included in your start-up support schemes?

The requirements are quite broad, because it’s about helping early-stage start-ups. Around 80-90 percent of start-ups fail at this stage, so we want to be there early to help build their technology and their platform. The idea is to build a start-up technology together, and then achieve growth.

Do you see Prague as a center of the regional IT sector, and if so, why?

The strong technical talent, both from locals and from others coming here as expats, make it a heart of innovation in the heart of Europe. It makes sense for us to have a lot of investment and talent based here, because the city is one of the epicenters of technology in the region.

We have more than 45 nationalities working in our development center from all over the world, with many coming from Central and Eastern Europe. They identify with the mission and purpose that we have to empower every person and every organization to achieve more. The center itself is a fantastic place to work, and the city is, of course, a place where people want to live.

Are you able to find enough skilled workers here in a tight job market? And what is Microsoft doing to boost the Czech IT talent pool even further?

You’re right; it is a tough job market. Unemployment is one of the lowest in the world, and there’s a lot of demand for tech talent, both local and international. There is a shortage of about 30,000 IT professionals throughout the Czech IT industry.

We are leading efforts to re-skill and up-skill the population to close this gap. We’re going to provide programs for half a million people to learn foundational digital skills. We’re also going to train 100,000 students and educators, from early ages all the way up to university. And we will train around 20,000 IT professionals through various certification programs and local partnerships.

There’s a realization everywhere that we just don’t have enough people in the IT industry, and with the emergence of AI, we also need to focus more widely on developing foundational skills such as data science and mathematics.

What are the main ways in which Microsoft drives technological innovation here in Czechia?

We’re not a traditional software vendor, which is perhaps how some people saw us in the past. We bring together brilliant technical minds within a vast ecosystem involving our partners, start-ups, public sector organizations, NGOs, industry leaders, and more.

Along with our extensive educational programs, we work with around 6,000 NGOs and more than 150 start-ups. And of course, we support enterprise customers, as well as small and medium businesses and public institutions. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia there are now over 70,000 customers using Microsoft Cloud across all industries and business categories.

How successfully are Czech businesses adopting advanced technologies?

Here are just a few examples of how technology is driving innovation throughout the economy.

One is agriculture and beer production, something that’s very important to Czechs! Asahi Breweries are using Cloud and AI technologies to improve production and sustainability. Our For Hops project with Asahi uses IoT sensors in hop farms to optimize hop-growing processes. This data helps hop growers understand when plants need moisture, which lets them handle water, which is often scarce, more efficiently, thus ensuring sustainable cultivation. Farmers, who are so impacted by climate change, are eager to adopt technologies that increase their yield.

We’re also working with Asahi on processes within pubs themselves. Sensors are being installed across 45 pubs in Prague to measure the water and electricity usage in beer taps, and optimize it to reduce the carbon footprint. This is all done in partnership with innovative Czech-based partners like Adastra.

Another good example is Zásilkovna, a Czech start-up which has really blossomed. They are using AI and smart robots to improve logistics and warehouse processes. When we started working with them in the start-up phase, they were delivering around 40,000 packages a day; now, they’re delivering over one million. They couldn't do this without the power of Cloud Computing & AI technology.

An example from the energy sector is Slovakia’s Slovenské elektrárne, which is using AI to automate weather prediction models. This allows them to see how much energy they should produce from renewable sources and maximize their efficiency accordingly. Optimization through AI technologies gives them a competitive advantage as the energy sector transforms.

We've also recently launched a project called Digital Hospital that highlights 98 solutions across thirty of our partners to show healthcare organizations, public and private, what AI and cloud technology can do to drive better patient or customer outcomes, work experiences for medical practitioners, and optimized healthcare processes. 

One of these solutions is Aireen, an AI-based diagnostic helping protect the sight of people with diabetes and providing early detection of retinopathy by using AI. In less than 30 seconds, it provides high-sensitivity, detailed insights into the diagnostic output based on over 1,000,000 images. This helps eye care clinics to offer a better product, better customer services, and ultimately better brand experience. 

Another AI-driven solution is Carebot, which enables doctors to detect early-stage cancer from chest X-rays with a success rate of over 99 percent, significantly higher than is achievable with the human eye. 

Do you think this switch to a more skills-based economy will be welcome in more traditional sectors such as manufacturing?

I think AI is positive throughout the economy, including sectors such as manufacturing, because it can make people more efficient and more productive. There is a shortage of skilled workers across various industries. At the same time, if you look at indices of economic output, we’re quite stagnant globally, while the population is growing. We need technology to augment what people can do.

The challenge is helping people re-skill and up-skill to meet this need. That’s why we’re investing in education, because in order to grow and develop, you need people with the right skills.

In this context, cybersecurity is becoming an increasing focus around the world. What role is Microsoft playing to help keep data safe?

This is a huge focus for us, and it always has been; lots of people don’t realize that we’re actually one of the world's largest cybersecurity providers. With a rapidly increasing amount of data and devices, security is more important than ever.

We have trillions of signals that come to us from our products, our Cloud services, and so on. With AI, we can look at these signals, apply technology, and proactively help organizations defend against cyberattacks.

AI Microsoft 04-2023  security

In Ukraine, we were able to get ahead of the many cyberattacks that happened right before the war started last year. There were hundreds of cyber operations against Ukraine leading up to and during the first six weeks of the invasion. We took steps to help the Ukrainian government and various agencies build a coalition to help protect against these cyberattacks.

We invest a lot in security, working closely with governments. Here in Prague, we’ve also launched cooperation with Charles University to jointly promote education, raise awareness, and share expertise in cybersecurity and cyberskilling, taking into account topics such as disinformation and democratic values.

“Artificial Intelligence” is a term that may conjure up false or fantastical ideas. How would you define AI today?

The core of AI is the application of highly advanced computational models with large data sets to provide human-like intelligence. It means extremely sophisticated and large language models that can be applied on infrastructure capable of performing computation at scale.

Decades of research have gone into this. We first focused on challenges such as achieving human parity, which means recognizing objects, speech, and other criteria just as well as a human could. More recently, we saw the emergence of large language models (like the ones powering GPT-4), along with advancements in Cloud computing to power them.

All of this combines with an abundance of data to learn from that we’ve never had before. Using this data, AI can provide guidance, context, and decision-making capabilities to help humans become more productive and creative.

We call it a “co-pilot” for everything that you do, whether you’re a business wanting to become more productive, a developer wanting to cut out mundane tasks and focus on higher added-value work, or a student making the most of personalized learning opportunities.

How do you work with companies to develop these AI solutions?

We have embedded AI in all of the products that we provide, including the commonly used Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, to help users become more productive. This, for example, will create the ability to automatically transcribe a meeting, create a summary, raise action items, and also turn your notes or data into a presentation or business proposal.

But we also package our AI solutions in the Azure Open AI Service for organizations to build on top of. If you’re a healthcare organization that wants to provide better precision diagnostics, for instance, we can provide technology that you can develop and augment for your own purposes.

AI facilitates powerful transformations, so what steps does Microsoft take to make sure it is used responsibly?

With any cutting-edge technology, there can be positivity and optimism but also unintended consequences. We’ve taken a proactive stance, building what we call Responsible AI Practices, which there are six.

The first is reliability and safety; the accuracy and safety of the AI models being built. The second is privacy and security; your data is your data, and our solutions must be secure. 

The third is inclusiveness; early AI worked with models that sometimes weren’t inclusive, but today we are building these values into our tools because if we don’t do this by design, outputs may not be inclusive.

The fourth is accountability; someone has to be accountable for the AI and its output. The fifth is transparency; where is the data coming from? And the last is fairness. When we provide customers with the tools they need, we guide them to make sure that they are using them based on these six responsible practices.

How optimistically do you look ahead to the future of these advanced technologies in Czechia?

First of all, we’re very optimistic about the impact that AI can have in the world, including in Czechia. It can transform industries that need help, from the production of sustainable and renewable energies, to improved healthcare systems and much more.

Another cause for optimism is cybersecurity. AI, combined with vast amounts of data, can make us more proactive in defending against cyber threats. We can see risks coming, instead of acting reactively as we did in the past.

All this together means AI can make people more productive, unleashing more of their cognitive abilities, creativity and capability. It will make people safer while transforming the industries that need it most.

This article was written in cooperation with Microsoft. Read more about our partner content policies here.

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