Credit: Ed Jay Photography
“Nobody ever died of humility.” said Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, with a smile on his face. Ina Fried, the chief technology correspondent at Axios, asked about his one word of advice for the audience, and his answer was “humility”. Everyone in the room laughed, and a lot of them were nodding. It’s a lighthearted way to end an evening with thought-provoking, compelling and frank conversations.
On Monday, September 16, Brad Smith sat down with Ina Fried to discuss some of the thorniest issues faced by the tech industry and our society today at an event co-hosted by the Churchill Club and the Computer History Museum, following the release of his book, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and The Peril of the Digital Age. Co-authored with Carol Ann Browne, the book covers an impressive range of 15 issues such as privacy, cybersecurity, social media, the talent gap, AI and the relationship between the United States and China. Brad believes that when your technology changes the world, you bear a responsibility to help address the world you have helped create. And this was one of the recurring themes at the event.
Our society has gone through two waves of privacy protection on a global basis, and we will soon enter the third wave that will be more rules-based.
The conversation started with discussions around consumer privacy in today’s digital world. While the public is concerned about the amount of data that tech companies have about them, they are not dropping their devices or reducing their usage of social media. Consumers do want to see their privacy protected; however, they don’t want to give up those devices and services. Government has a critical role to play, and so does the technology industry. According to Brad, our society has gone through two waves of privacy protection on a global basis, and we will soon enter the third wave that will be more rules-based.
An optimist, Brad believes in the power of multilateralism. One such example is the Christchurch Call. On 15 March 2019, people watched in horror as a terrorist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and live-streamed the scene for 17 minutes. Two months later after this world’s first internet-staged mass shooting happened, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and French President, Emmanuel Macron brought together Heads of State and Government as well as leaders from the tech sector to adopt the Christchurch Call, a commitment by governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.
As the conversation continued and covered more topics from antitrust to AI and facial recognition, Ina asked Brad’s opinion on the relationship between the U.S. and China. According to Brad, when it comes to the technology relationship between the two superpowers, the nuances matter, and the details matter. “If we created a wall, we might well do more to hold ourselves back than the people who live on the other side.”
In Brad’s opinion, one of the most effective and powerful ways to solve the technology issues of our day is to build coalitions of the willing, and particularly multi-stakeholder coalitions that bring together governments, tech companies, and nonprofits across civil society. “If you are determined, if you can establish strong principles…you can establish a new pillar, you can make it strong and you can continue to attract more people to support it over time.”
“I am a believer of more progress,” Brad said, “If you constantly move forward, if you constantly make progress, and you constantly use that as the opportunity to take the next step, that’s how you really pursue lasting change, whether it’s the world of business or anything else.
When asked where Brad sees this conversation in 3-5 years, he hopes to see continued progress in collaboration as an industry as well as controversies in AI. The night ended with rounds of applause. The audience walked away feeling inspired. There’s more to think about, and the conversation will continue.