In chatbots she trusts

An interview with Microsoft AI leader Lili Cheng

Microsoft AI leader Lili Cheng

Before her first job in tech at Apple in the mid‑1990s, Lili Cheng studied to be an architect. Today she designs AI bots. In her role as corporate VP of AI and research at Microsoft, Cheng oversees Bot Framework, a platform that gives developers tools to build conversational AI chatbots.

In her not‑so‑spare time, Cheng also mentors young girls interested in pursuing careers in tech as an advisor to the nonprofit AI4ALL. In a recent conversation with Workflow, Cheng talked about her work with customers, where AI can make a difference in organizations, and what it’s like to be a woman in the tech industry.

How do you spend a typical day?

I run engineering teams for half of the day. We’re looking at the tools and AI parts that we’re building and shipping, and working with our research teams to bring their work in. Then, for the other part of the day, I’m talking with customers and trying to understand what they’re building and the projects they’re working on.

What AI projects with customers are you focused on right now?

Today I was talking with Vodafone. They want to rethink how they interact with customers globally, so we’re starting trials with them. BMW is also thinking about what’s the next AI assistant in the car, and how do you make all the things you want to do when you’re mobile better. Our customers are not only looking at how they interact with their customers through AI but also how to get work done better.

We’ve also been engaged with Adobe to help create an overall bot architecture and initial creation of multiple prototype bots. Adobe has a program called Experience League, which is a hub that guides customers to new skills and trainings so they can take full advantage of the tools.

Our collaboration with Adobe yielded new conversational chatbot experiences through our Azure Bot Service and Azure Cognitive Services, which connect to Adobe services and help their customers find answers faster in Experience League.

How do you think AI tools are helping people get more work done?

We see people applying AI to pretty much every common workplace activity—recruiting, finance, HR, communication in teams—to make those tools and experiences better.

When you think of working in a company and you see these tools, often they’re outdated or they’re hard to use or they’re out of your workflow applications, so we’re seeing a lot of companies using analytics and conversational AI to eliminate tedious tasks.

Tedious things prevent you from doing things that are more important. So a lot of that will get a lot better.

One thing we’re really interested in is helping people track better, like, if you have a half‑hour free, what should you be doing? What’s the status of your project? How you can share information in your company better, so even just looking at your communication history and being able to do more with it.

What human skills do you think will be most valuable in the years to come?

I think people should focus on learning things more deeply. I’ve been trying to read a lot more. I found it really hard to concentrate and read a 1,000‑page book. So I decided I would read more and I find it helps me with concentration.

I think we need to encourage people to learn something new. You can’t just do it for five minutes. How do you finish a course? How do you build mastery? A lot of that is through projects and working on things with other people.

I also think not everybody needs to be a coder. Technology isn’t the only thing that’s important. The arts are important. I was an architect before I was a coder. So sometimes it’s not completely motivating to tell someone who’s an architect, “Hey, if you want to be successful in the future, you need to code.”

That’s one way to get there but I could also get there through architecture, or data visualization. There are lots of paths.

What advice do you have for girls and young women interested in pursuing a career in AI?

I mentor a fairly large number of girls who are younger than high school and college. If you think about the future of work, AI is going to be a part of almost anything you build. I encourage young girls not to be afraid of technology. They should be inspired to build and create the kinds of things they want to use. They’re going to be the ones who invent the future that we live in.

What kinds of hurdles do they face compared to your own experience?

I’m Asian and I grew up in Nebraska. I was just there a month ago and I thought, just being a woman, being a minority of any kind, it seems better. It seems better in this country and in the world in general.

But no matter what you do, you have to be ready to re‑prove yourself. You have to be willing to keep learning and learn how to work better with other people. You shouldn’t be offended if someone thinks you don’t know as much as non‑tech people.

Just the fact that you’re asking me this question, I don’t think people asked that 20 years ago. There’s never been a better time for women in tech.