Microsoft President Brad Smith sits in a chair on stage as he talks with the audience in Stansbury Theatre.
Brad Smith, president of Microsoft Corp., discusses his new book, “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age,” Friday morning in Stansbury Theatre at Lawrence University. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Brad Smith is a tech guru. His title, president of Microsoft Corp., would tell you that.

But he’s also a student of history and a writer, a thread that was front and center as he spoke Friday morning to a packed Stansbury Theatre on the Lawrence University campus, drawing on parallels between lessons learned in the 20th century and the anxieties that come with new frontiers in artificial intelligence, facial recognition technology, and the explosion of data science.

As he does in his new book, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age, Smith compared the needed expansion of broadband access into still-underserved rural communities to the electrifying of rural America in the 1930s and ’40s. And he said the transformation of our daily lives by artificial intelligence over the next 30 years will have similarities to the arrival of the combustion engine in the first half of the 20th century. But with AI comes the potential for abuse that could rock the world in ways we don’t yet fully understand.

“The book is really about the collision between technology and society,” Smith said.

A 1977 graduate of Appleton West High School, the 60-year-old Smith returned to his hometown as part of a book tour with co-author Carol Ann Browne. He was introduced by Brian Pertl, the dean of the Lawrence Conservatory of Music who previously spent 16 years at Microsoft, serving as manager of the tech giant’s Media Acquisitions Group.

Smith was then joined on stage by host Scott Corry, a Lawrence professor of mathematics, who said Tools and Weapons carries a message about the evolution of the tech industry and the people it will employ in the future, something that should get the attention of today’s students no matter their field of study.

“The challenges laid out touch not only everyone in this room but everyone on the planet,” Corry said. “What I was impressed with in the book was the focus on how all sorts of other skills need to be put in place if we’re going to solve these problems. Among those are the ability to communicate across groups and understand other cultures, global relations, and policy. These are all things that we put front and center here at Lawrence as a liberal arts school.”

Smith echoed that sentiment, saying the liberal arts approach is already alive and growing in the tech sector, with new hires coming in with backgrounds in philosophy, history and music, among others. Data scientists and software engineers are important, but it’s not their game alone.

“The future of technology and future of these issues is going to be much more multi-disciplinary,” Smith said.

Brad Smith laughs with students from Appleton West High School on the Stansbury Theatre stage.
Microsoft President Brad Smith shares a laugh with students from Appleton West High School on the stage of Stansbury Theatre following his book discussion. He graduated from West in 1977. The school, he said, set him on his career course.

Find more photos from Brad Smith’s visit to Lawrence here.

The coming boom in artificial intelligence means this is the first generation creating machines with the power to make significant decisions previously handled solely by humans. That’s a huge responsibility, with all sorts of technical and ethical trouble spots to navigate, Smith said.

“Once you put it in those terms, you realize that you hope these machines will make decisions that will reflect the best of humanity,” he said. “And how do we bring the best of humanity into technology, into these products? Well, it has to be with more than just computer and data science. It has to be with a sense of social sciences and a sense of history and the humanities.”

Smith pointed to advancements that have been made in facial recognition technology. It’s already being used for good in some sectors. He noted its seemingly simple use in unlocking a phone or laptop, but also more expansive uses in hospital emergency rooms, where it can potentially help reconnect families when someone has gone missing.

But the prospect for abuse of the technology, including a breach of privacy, is very real and must be addressed, Smith said.

“Our argument is that people should have the opportunity to know when there are facial recognition systems at work,” he said.

And then there is the concern of authoritarian governments using facial recognition systems to control the populace.

“Even though it’s completely unprecedented, it is not unimaginable because it was completely imagined — 70 years ago when George Orwell wrote his novel, 1984,” Smith said. “You might remember the description of Big Brother in that book. There’s a scene where the only way people could organize themselves civically and politically was literally to find their way separately to a blackened-out room and then communicate by tapping on each other’s wrists in code.”

Don’t discount that as mere fiction, Smith said.

“We are heading rapidly into a world where there are cameras everywhere, there are microphones everywhere, and it raises fundamental constitutional questions and human rights questions about how facial recognition will be used by governments around the world,” he said. “And these are fundamental issues for tech companies. We have to decide, what are the lines we are prepared to draw? We’ve stood as a company as saying there must be lines that we draw if we are going to ensure that this technology protects people and that it’s not a weapon to subvert them.

“It’s going to take more than companies standing up. You can never get every company to stand together. It’s going to take the democratic countries of this world to stand up. This is potentially the greatest tool that an authoritarian regime has ever had at its disposal and could fundamentally change the character of human rights protections around the world if we don’t act quickly to address it.”

Hence the title of the book, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age. The issues surrounding new technology are, well, complicated.

“I think it’s actually fitting that we’re having this conversation in a conservatory,” Smith said. “All of these things [at a liberal arts college] reflect the various parts of humanity that need to come together.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu