COVID-19 has highlighted the value of software developers and presented an opportunity to reimagine the role of technology in society, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said overnight, pointing to distributed computing for medical research as an example.

During his headline keynote at the Microsoft Build conference, Nadella heaped praise on the world’s “digital first responders” who rapidly developed technology solutions for COVID-19 like ventilator manufacturing and health data tracking.

“Our industry has been called upon to help address the world’s most acute needs through this crisis,” Nadella told the virtual crowd of thousands of developers. 

“And I’m proud of how all of you have raised the game and been there when the world needed you the most. Serving as those digital first responders to the first responders out there for whom we are very thankful.”

Now it is up to developers to build the technologies that will improve society post-COVID-19, Nadella said.

“We are at an inflection point.

“As developers you have that opportunity as well as a responsibility to define what should be rebuilt, what should be reimagined and what should be left behind.”

Distributed computing for good

The Microsoft chief used crowd sourcing of computing power for medical research to illustrate his point.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaking during the virtual Build Event.

[email protected] is an organisation that shares the unused compute power of people’s home computers to run protein folding simulations. When proteins don’t fold correctly it can lead to cancer, infectious and neurological diseases. Simulating millions of folds across a distributed computing network can help researchers find ways to treat many of the diseases.

Interest in the project exploded when it was touted as a useful tool in the fight against COVID-19.

“Over the last two months we’ve gone from having around 30,000 to 4 million devices running folding at home,” said [email protected] director Dr Greg Bowman. 

Microsoft is working with [email protected] to scale the project and provide many of the additional compute and storage resources needed, as well as ways to engage volunteers and disseminate results. 

“We have a real opportunity to impact COVID-19 but this is also a general platform that we can bring to bear on Alzheimer’s disease and antibiotic resistance and cancer, and a long list of other things,” Bowman said.

Two years of transformation in two months

Nadella briefly detailed how usage of Microsoft’s platforms has surged under social distancing restrictions and remote work, arguing developers are increasingly turning to the American tech giant for their work.

Microsoft-owned code repository GitHub now supports more than 50 million developers, while its code visualiser Visual Studio Code is now the most popular in the world, Nadella said. Usage of the platforms increased considerably during the pandemic, Nadella said, as did Microsoft’s collaboration and productivity software; Teams and 365.

Microsoft’s public cloud service, Azure, is now being used by 95 per cent of Fortune 500 companies, Nadella said.

But he argues almost every business has been forced to accelerate their digital capabilities because of COVID-19.

“Already we’ve seen something like two years worth of digital transformation in just two months,” Nadella said.

“And we’ve seen how critical digital technology is in the three phases of this crisis; from emergency response to the recovery phase to reimagining the world going forward. 

“Every organisation will increasingly need the ability at a moment’s notice to remote everything from manufacturing to sales to customer support. They will also need the ability to simulate anything from how the immune system responds to a virus to how a fault in a wind turbine can impact our power supply. And they will need to be able to automate everywhere to enable faster, more agile response from triage in healthcare to the maintenance in smart buildings to curbside pickup and retail.”

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