Microsoft’s Brad Smith on the Power and Perils of Technology

Photo courtesy of Princeton University, Office of Engineering Communications, Andrea Kane (2018)

By Donald Gilpin

“Data Fallout at Facebook,” “Americans See AI as a Threat to Jobs,” “Digital Cash Made Easy (Fraud Too),” “Self-Driving Car Accidents Will Keep Happening,” “Russian Election Meddling,” “The Rise of Cyber Surveillance,” “Can Democracy Survive Big Data?”

The headlines overflow with ominous warnings about the unintended consequences of the rapid growth of technology in the 21st century. Our romance with artificial intelligence (AI) and our faith in its potential to improve our lives have clearly hit a rough patch. A self-driving car kills a pedestrian; Facebook accounts look like more of a liability than an asset to our personal lives and relationships, our freedom, and the stability of our political systems; our jobs are disappearing; and though our smartphones often bring us together and help to educate our children, they can also create more loneliness, less actual human contact, and more closed-mindedness.

On March 1, Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith, an individual who probably knows as much about the pros and cons of technology as any human being on the planet, addressed a gathering of about 500 in Princeton University’s McCosh Hall on the subject of “The Rise of Artificial Intelligence.”

His talk provided as many questions as answers. “It is possible to discern a number of trends and we can make decisions based on those trends, but there is no such thing as a crystal ball, and none of us can know with certainty what lies ahead,” Smith said. He emphasized the power of technology, “AI is making every field better. It could be a game-changer for the planet.” But he warned, “We can’t afford to look at this future with uncritical eyes.”

“AMBASSADOR FOR TECHNOLOGY”

A Princeton University alumnus, Class of 1981, and a trustee, Smith is Microsoft’s chief compliance officer, playing a key role in representing Microsoft across the globe and in leading the company’s work on a number of critical issues, including privacy, security, accessibility, environmental sustainability, and others. In 2013 he was named by the National Law Journal as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in the United States, and in 2014 the New York Times called him “a de facto ambassador for the technology industry at large.”

After graduating from Princeton with a degree summa cum laude in international relations and economics, Smith earned his law degree at Columbia University and studied international law and economics at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Switzerland. Before he joined Microsoft in 1993, he worked at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Covington & Burling, where he is still remembered as the first lawyer in the history of the firm to insist (in 1986) on having a personal computer on his desk as a condition for accepting a job offer.

In a recent email, Smith reflected on how his undergraduate experience at Princeton, with its focus on international issues, politics, and technology, helped to shape his future career. “I was fortunate as an undergraduate to learn about technology policy issues, both as a student in the Wilson School and on the job as a work-study student for Princeton’s director of government affairs,” he wrote. “I combined these interests with study in international relations, often from a historical vantage point. I developed a passion for the combination of these issues and have had the opportunity to pursue them throughout my career.”

Forty years later, as a trustee, Smith continues to engage with these issues at Princeton. “One of the many great pleasures of serving as a Princeton trustee has been the chance to reconnect with the many advances in all of these fields taking place across the campus,” he said.

Smith went on to comment on the potential for collaboration between academic and business communities. Microsoft recently joined with Princeton University and one of its undergraduate students to bring a lawsuit against the federal government for its decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and in April a federal judge ruled that the government’s action was unlawful.

Writing about research possibilities in the university-business alliance, Smith noted, “We’re living in a time of rapid technological change, and we see this both across the tech sector and in the basic research pursued at the country’s great universities. It’s an important time to foster collaboration between companies and universities. This helps us learn from each other, and often we can learn together through collaborative research projects.”

He added, “It’s critical for business to respect the academic freedom that is fundamental to the role of faculty at the nation’s universities. By respecting that principle, I believe there is huge potential for researchers from companies and universities to work together to advance the frontiers of knowledge, especially in fields that are fundamental to the future of computer and data science.”

“NEED TO WAKE UP”

Smith’s speech at Princeton in March was balanced in its enthusiasm and fear, its optimism and concern for the future. He warned the packed lecture hall that the challenges ahead are formidable — both for individuals seeking rewarding employment and for societies striving to uphold principles of ethics in the face of powerful technological forces.

“We need to be prepared for the unexpected,” he said, “and we may need to be agile as we think about what we may need to call on governments to do, which I think is sobering because in some ways we don’t live in a time with the most agile government in history in terms of politics, regardless of what side of the political spectrum you might be on.”

Smith cited Albert Einstein, who, in the 1930s between the World Wars, observed that over the course of the previous century humanity’s ability to organize had not kept pace with its ingenuity in the development of technology. “Can we do better in the 21st century than the world did in the previous century?” Smith asked. “Or will we have to go through some other calamity before we wake up and do what the world requires?” He continued, “Even as we embrace these new technologies, we do need to wake up. We are not fully awake. If we wake up a little more, I’ll be a little more optimistic.”

Putting the rise of technology into context, Smith first asked his listeners to think about how much technology had changed lives over the past 20 years, the life span of many of the students in the audience, and to contemplate the changes that might occur in the coming 20 years. In 1998 there was TV, radio, an old phone, an answering machine, probably a VCR that was too complicated to operate fully, but “nothing digital in the way people started their day.”

Today, he noted, the smartphone is the first thing many people reach for in the morning. It’s the device that not only wakes you, but serves up headlines and updates you on your friends’ social lives. “Compared with the world just 20 years ago, we take a lot of things for granted that used to be the stuff of science fiction.”

WORLD OF 2038

Smith went on to describe a world 20 years from now, in 2038, grounded in artificial intelligence, where your digital assistant will assemble and organize your information, prepare you for your day, and update you on everything you need to know for the day ahead. “You’ll probably have a digital assistant talking to you as you’re shaving or putting on your make-up to get ready for your day,” he said. AI will also attend to your health and medical needs.

With its ability to create ever more powerful computers, harnessing huge amounts of data, Smith said that AI will increasingly promote breakthroughs in health care, agriculture, education, and transportation. It will aid people with disabilities and combat climate change.

“The real goal,” Smith emphasized, “is to make sure that all of this technology actually helps us and amplifies human ingenuity. Ultimately the question is not only what computers can do. It’s what computers should do.”

Highlighting both good and bad effects of technology, Smith queried, “As computers become more like humans, how will they impact real people?” He echoed Stephen Hawking’s warning: “I fear that AI might replace humans altogether.”

THE ETHICS OF AI

Along with the benefits of technology have come many complex questions and concerns about technology’s effects on society. The distractions of smartphones, cybersecurity, privacy issues, and the negative uses and impact of social media present huge challenges to society and new ethical considerations.

“For every part of society, consideration of the ethics of AI is essential,” he said. Smith’s concerns with morality and moral leadership seemed to foreshadow comments made just six weeks later by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, testifying before Congress on April 10 over Facebook’s lapses. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility,” Zuckerberg said, “and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake and I’m sorry.”

In an email response to a question about the current controversy surrounding Facebook, Smith wrote, “We should all look at the tech issues around social media as more of an opportunity than a challenge. Technology is being used in a myriad of ways that are fundamental across society, but we haven’t spent enough time nurturing a broad public conversation about how these products work or the impact they are having. If anything, the congressional hearings about Facebook illustrate the broad learning opportunity our elected politicians have in front of them. Across the tech sector it’s our responsibility to take information to them, and clearly we can do more work in this area.”

In his lecture, Smith listed six ethical principles that should guide the development and use of AI: fairness, reliability and safety, privacy and security, inclusiveness, transparency (to make AI explainable), and accountability. “Accountability is the most important question of our time,” he noted. “How do we ensure that these machines are accountable to people?” Smith proposed a Hippocratic Oath for all AI developers: “First, do no harm.” And he warned that we could “wake up and find that we have entrusted machines with the ability to make decisions that horrify us.”

UPHEAVALS IN EMPLOYMENT

The continuing rapid growth and development of technology, with AI systems more effectively and powerfully processing visual information and analyzing speech and language, will result in more automation and jobs disappearing for car and truck drivers, radiologists, fast food workers, machinery inspectors, paralegals, and others.

“But some jobs cannot be replaced by AI,” Smith stated, “like jobs requiring human creativity, empathy, human interactivity.” Social workers, teachers, nurses, and therapists, for example, will not be replaced by AI, but will use AI to enhance their work. Jobs will be created in computer science, data science, and also in the ethics of technology. The most important question, he stated, is “How can AI empower people?”

The elimination of some jobs, the creation of new jobs requiring new skills, and the evolution of old jobs, also requiring new skills, throughout history have always been consequences of the growth of technology. Smith emphasized the importance of embracing the changes, pursuing further education to learn liberal arts, the humanities, and social sciences, as well as engineering and computer science.

“The companies and countries that will fare best in the AI era will be those that embrace these changes rapidly and effectively,” Smith observed. “Put simply, new jobs and economic growth will accrue to those that embrace the technology, not those that resist it.” But skilling-up for the world of 2038 will involve more than science, technology, engineering, and math. “As computers behave more like humans, the humanities will become increasingly important,” he added.

Smith went on to urge his audience, “Everyone who is in the liberal arts can be learning a little bit of computer science and data science, and every engineer is probably going to need some more liberal arts in their future. Where will AI take you? The job description is just where your job begins. You decide where your job will take you. Seize the challenge and make that future real.”

Photo Courtesy of Microsoft