You only needed to read the title of the 2016 Nies Lecture in Intellectual Property presented Tuesday at Marquette Law School to know that Brad Smith was offering a generally positive view of the future of technological innovation. “A Cloud for Global Good: The Future of Technology—Issues for Wisconsin and the World” was the title.
Indeed, Smith spoke to the potential for what he called the fourth industrial revolution to improve lives across the world. But he also voiced concerns about the future of privacy and security for personal information in a rapidly changing world, and he called for updating of both American laws and international agreements related to technology to respond to the big changes.
All of this came from a standpoint of unquestionable knowledge of the subject matter. Smith is the president and chief legal officer of Microsoft. The Appleton native has been with the company since 1993 and his duties include overseeing corporate, external, and legal affairs for the global technology giant.
In addition to delivering the Nies Lecture, Smith took part in an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program. In both sessions, he talked about the future of technology and stressed the need for individuals, companies, and countries to pursue continuing education if they want to keep up.
In the Nies Lecture, Smith said the first industrial revolution, starting in the 1700s, was driven by the rise of the steam engine and other machines. The second, beginning in the last third of the 1800s, was driven by the rise of electricity and modern transportation methods. The third, in recent decades, was built around the impact of computers and the internet.
And now comes the fourth, driven by technology focused on the Cloud and the use of massive amounts of data on a global basis, including robotics, new uses of biological knowledge through such things as genomics, and “disruptive” technologies.
But, Smith said, the world needs a Cloud that is responsive to people, widely trusted, and inclusive. He said Microsoft has been an advocate in court and in political arenas for policies that build the kind of confidence people have wanted in the past that their personal information will be kept private and secure within well-developed policies. He described, for example, how Microsoft has fought the federal government in court over whether electronic data kept at a center in Ireland were subject to American subpoena without going through legal processes in Ireland. A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the company’s position against that level of federal reach.
More broadly, Smith emphasized the importance of education to success in the economy of today and in the future. In both appearances at the Law School, he said that over the last quarter of a century the number of jobs in the United States for people with four-year college degrees or more had gone up 107 percent. The number of jobs for those with two-year degrees or comparable levels of post-high school education had gone up 47 percent. And the number of jobs for those with only a high school diploma or less had gone down 13 percent.
“We have to be a learning economy, and pursue that as a nation,” Smith said.
He said access to opportunities to benefit from technology, including in developing careers, needs to be open to all. He said that only 80 out of about 500 high schools in Wisconsin offer Advanced Placement courses in computer science and students in those 80 schools were getting a chance to learn that others were not. He also said broadband access was not good in many parts of Wisconsin and access to technology needs to be treated as an infrastructure priority along with such things as roads and utilities.
Asked during the conversation with Gousha what advice he would give law students, Smith focused on what he said was the most notable trait of the most remarkable people he had dealt with: “the intense pursuit of curiosity.” He said that was a trait held in common by people such as Satya Nadella, the current CEO of Microsoft; Bill Gates, the founder of the company; Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Curiosity, Smith said, is one of the most powerful traits in the world.
Smith said the population of the United States accounts for four and a half percent of the world’s population, and engaging with the rest of the world is crucial for the country—and certainly for Microsoft.
He concluded his Nies Lecture by saying that “there is an opportunity for us to use technology in ways that help people learn about the world in which we live.” He said, “Our future depends on understanding the rest of the world. In fact, we live on a pretty small planet. But I do believe, with the right kind of thought and discussion and innovation in the law and with better use of technology, we can ensure that this isn’t just a small planet, but a better world.”