Technology — whether it’s a broom or artificial intelligence — can be seen as a tool or a weapon. It all depends on the user’s intent, Microsoft President Brad Smith said during a recent visit to Lawrence University.
“You can clean the floor with the broom or hit someone over the head with it,” says Smith, who graduated from Appleton West High School and considers Appleton his hometown. “There’s such a huge collision going on out there now between technology and society. It can be a huge tool, but a huge weapon as well.”
Those concerns led Smith to write his latest book, “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age” with Carol Ann Browne. The book uses history and the power of storytelling to show that previous generations have faced some of the same issues and questions we face regarding today’s technology.
“There’s a quote some attribute to Mark Twain that says ‘History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it often rhymes,’” Smith says.
Smith uses his love of history to point out similarities with spreading technology — whether it’s electricity or broadband internet access — to all. In the early 1930s, few rural areas had access to electricity, but by the end of World War II, more than 90 percent of U.S. homes had access. Right now, having broadband coverage can be a challenge in rural areas due to financial and some technical issues.
“Without broadband connections, rural areas can struggle to attract and retain businesses and residents, which is why this is something we are working on,” says Smith, adding Microsoft is taking steps of its own to help get more people connected. In early 2018, Microsoft partnered with Packerland Broadband, now called Astrea, to provide broadband internet access to an estimated 82,000 people living in rural areas of northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Data and how it’s used is another example of something that can be used as a tool or a weapon, Smith says. Having access to a huge amount of data can be a big advantage to an organization or entity — if used properly, says Smith, adding that same data could be used to infringe on someone’s human rights.
“So much is happening with facial recognition. While there are some benefits, there’s also a lot of danger as authoritarian states could use that in oppressive measures,” he says. “At Microsoft, along with some other tech companies, we have drawn lines about the right way it can be used, but it takes more. It requires democratic countries to stand up and take a stand. If not, authoritarian countries will really use it to their own advantages and to the disadvantages of their citizens’ human rights.”
AI is one emerging technology that has some worried, including a fear that machines will take over everyone’s jobs. “We are the first generation to make machines that make decisions that people used to do,” Smith says. “But as we do that, we need to make sure some of the humanities are built into it, whether it’s history, philosophy.”
That connection between technology and humanities sparked a connection for Brian Pertl, dean of the Lawrence Conservatory of Music and a former Microsoft employee.
“A lot of what we are doing here at Lawrence is to prepare students for a future and jobs that don’t even exist today, but what we teach here at a liberal arts university helps prepare students to handle the changing landscape,” he says.
Smith cautions some technical advances can have indirect economic consequences. For example, he points to the invention of the combustible engine, which led people to use cars and trucks instead of horses as a means of transportation. Since fewer horses were needed, the horse population declined and Smith says farmers who grew hay to feed horses switched to other crops, including cotton and corn. Those agriculture markets were flooded with excess supply, which pushed down how much farmers were making.
“From there, farmers had a hard time paying back loans at their rural banks and some of those closed, which then led to problems at urban banks, which eventually played a role in the Great Depression,” he says. “As new technologies emerge, we must be agile.”
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