January 15, 2021
Microsoft president Brad Smith’s CES keynote balanced Microsoft’s global footprint with the opportunities, challenges and responsibilities of technology, government and people. Smith illustrated these themes with sections on massive data, environmental impact, cybersecurity, privacy, artificial intelligence, regulation, and a call for a 9/11-type commission to protect the future by understanding the threats of the present. Smith wrapped his remarks with the words of John F. Kennedy from 1962 when he said, “Technology has no conscience of its own. Whether it becomes a force for good or ill depends on man.”
Smith took viewers inside one of Microsoft’s data centers in Quincy, Washington, a 300-acre complex filled with half a million servers that can store more than 50,000 Libraries of Congress. “This really is the infrastructure for almost everything that we’re engaged in today. The way you live your life, the way you do your work, the way research and development are all moving forward,” he said (click on the image below to watch the full keynote).
This Microsoft Azure server farm was just the curtain-raiser. “These campuses represent not only the most advanced digital infrastructure in the world, but some of the most advanced energy infrastructure as well,” said Smith. Nineteen thousand battery cells and 140 electrical generators, each capable of powering the equivalent of 3,000 homes provide backup in case of power loss from the grid.
Today, they run on diesel fuel but in the next decade they will be replaced by either new generators that run on hydrogen power or new advanced fuel cells. The combination of digital technology, energy tech, environmental science and demand for innovation is, in Smith’s words, “the physical embodiment of our mission to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”
“But there’s a darker side as well,” he suggested. “Even as computing creates all of this promise, there are new perils arising as well. And governments, quite rightly increasingly, are asking us as an industry not only what they think they should do, but what they expect us to do, too. The issues are critical, they span privacy and cybersecurity, digital safety and sometimes just the loss of control that people or communities or countries they feel they face.”
The 1983 thriller “War Games” was the basis for a story Smith told of Ronald Reagan’s Camp David movie nights during his presidency. After watching the movie, the President “turns to General John Vessey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and says, ‘General, could something like this really happen? Could just anybody hack into our most secure computer?’ And he says, ‘Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think.’ This led to the first national security decision directive on computer security.”
“’War Games’ was important not just because it showed engineers what computers could do, but it showed all of us and people in government the problems we would need to work together to solve. It literally changed the arc of work needed to protect the country and the world. It’s a powerful reminder that we constantly need to keep learning,” Smith observed.
The recently revealed Solar Winds breach is a real life lesson, not a movie, and something Smith says Microsoft views as critically important to anticipate whatever is next. Espionage is nothing new but Smith noted a shift from rules and norms to an environment absent of them.
“To protect the future is to understand the threats of the present. And that requires that we share data in new ways.,” he said before drawing a comparison to the lessons learned from 9/11 when people did not share data or threat assessments across the United States government. “We need to move as the 9/11 Commission said from a culture where people only gave others information when they had a need to know. And in the words of that Commission, change the culture so that people feel a need to share. Not everything, of course. We must protect personal privacy. We must think about the appropriate division and roles between the public and private sectors.”
Artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology are two of several indicative fields where Smith can see “the risk of science catching up with science fiction, of technology outpacing our ability to exercise control.” In the decade ahead, “as we think about AI and all of the promise of artificial intelligence in so many ways, we have to think as well about the new guard rails that we need to create so that humanity remains in control of our technology,” he explained.
In cautionary words, Smith warned, “We are all called on as an industry and as governments and indeed as a planet to ensure that humanity retains control of the computers that we create. These are all among the challenges that we’re going to need to come together to address this year and in each of the years that follow. As we start a new year, I think it’s a time to think about the road ahead and I also think it’s a time to remember that there are so many challenges and reasons to be optimistic.”
He concluded with Kennedy’s remarks, presenting them as relevant today as they were more than half a century ago. “Technology has no conscience,” he said, “It has been true in every era of technology. Technology has no conscience, but people do and we do. And as an industry, we must, we must exercise our conscience. For all of us as individuals in companies and as an industry, every day when we go to work, we will decide whether technology is used for good or for ill. That is our opportunity. That is our challenge.”