OPINION | How Microsoft's $20 billion AI deal will shake up how we work

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Microsoft said on Monday that had agreed to buy voice recognition and AI specialist Nuance Communications for about $56 a share, or almost $20 billion including debt.

Imagine the workplace of the future, where computers powered by artificial intelligence take care of the most tedious administrative tasks, making employees happier and more productive. Microsoft wants to be at the forefront of that future — and its deal for voice-recognition and AI specialist Nuance Communications shows it’s willing to spend a lot of money to do it. 

Microsoft said on Monday that had agreed to buy Nuance Communications for about $56 a share, or almost $20 billion including debt. At first glance, it may seem like a strange candidate for what would become Microsoft’s second-largest acquisition after its $26 billion deal for LinkedIn. For much of the last decade, Nuance’s sales have stagnated as the early pioneer of speech-recognition products wasn’t able to innovate fast enough. But that has changed. Given the impressive technology and potential inside its latest AI solution for health care, a purchase of Nuance makes sense.

The game-changing product is the Nuance Dragon Ambient eXperience, or DAX, which was released in February 2020. While prior offerings forced doctors to use devices to transcribe notes and then spend hours at the end of the day to file paperwork, DAX takes the administrative burden off their plate. During each visit, the system records voice conversations between doctors and patients, then leverages AI to find the proper context for the discussions and automatically creates detailed clinical documentation for review. All the doctor has to do is sign off. At least for physicians, it seems as if the AI-powered panacea is now here.

Hospitals love it. They get happier doctors, who can see more patients, and there’s a reduced risk of clinical mistakes. Citing a survey, Nuance notes the percentage of doctors feeling burnout and fatigue dropped to 17% from 72% with the use of DAX.

Physicians say it also enables higher quality care because they can focus on treating patients instead of doing data entry. The excitement has reached investors. During Nuance’s most recent earnings call, nearly every question from Wall Street touched upon DAX’s prospects. While the use of DAX is still in the early stages, the financial future looks bright. Earlier this year, Nuance said revenue from DAX could rise to as much as $250 million by 2023 from an estimated $15 million or so this year, and it was seeing rising interest from current and new customers.

A Microsoft-Nuance combination increases the opportunity for growth, with Microsoft’s heft allowing for a larger rollout. There are other synergies. DAX, which already uses Microsoft’s cloud-computing service Azure and benefits from its AI technologies under a strategic partnership signed in 2019, can be further integrated into the technology giant's services to create an even more powerful offering. Most critically, Microsoft will learn all the intimate details on how to best develop advanced AI solutions for the workplace that it can apply to other industries.

On one front, however, Microsoft should tread carefully. No other technology company has been as active shopping for large companies. In late March, Bloomberg reported Microsoft was in talks to buy gaming chat community Discord Inc. for more than $10 billion.

This, after the company completed its $7.5 billion acquisition of video-game publisher ZeniMax and reportedly considered Pinterest Inc. in recent months. And of course, Microsoft made an attempt to buy the US operations of TikTok last year. Too many big deals may draw the attention of regulators, who may eventually wonder if the same antitrust scrutiny now given to giants such as Facebook and Alphabet should pertain to Microsoft as well.

In the meantime, if Microsoft can get a Nuance deal done without causing too much trouble for itself, it will add the essential expertise it needs to lead the next big disruptive wave of innovation. It’s a worthy pursuit.

Tae Kim is a Bloomberg columnist. Views expressed are the author's own. 

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