Skip to content
Microsoft in Business Blogs

This week, I’m excited to travel to Pittsburgh to deliver a keynote speech at the inaugural Pittsburgh Tech & Data Summit. Hosted by Duquesne University, the summit brings together leaders from the region’s technology, legal, and business sectors to explore some of the issues that have emerged as the pace of technology-driven transformation accelerates, including the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI), data and privacy, workforce diversity and inclusion, and what it means for a city to be an innovation center.

These are also some of the issues that Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote about in his new book “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and Peril of the Digital Age.” Central to “Tools and Weapons” is the idea that technology companies must take greater responsibility for our impact on the world. In my remarks, I look forward to talking about how this concept can serve as an important foundation for driving innovation, and how it can help provide a framework for addressing the technology-driven changes and disruptions that the world is experiencing right now.

It is hard to imagine a better place to explore these topics than Pittsburgh—a city that has undergone a remarkable transformation over the last decade. Among the great urban centers of America’s industrial golden age, Pittsburgh experienced the impact of de-industrialization in the closing decades of the 20th century. Once one of the nation’s 10 largest cities, Pittsburgh’s population fell by more than 50 percent and by the 1980s it no longer ranked in the top 30.

Now Pittsburgh is regularly listed among the top 10 places in the country to live. One of the nation’s most vibrant cities, it is also one of the world’s most important centers for technology research, development, and innovation.

There are a lot of reasons for this resurgence ranging from environmental sustainability efforts, to investments in the arts and the continued growth of world class educational institutions such as Duquesne as well as Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh—two of the world’s top research institutions. Their presence as research partners and a source of talent has led major technology companies like Microsoft to establish offices in Pittsburgh, increasing employment in high tech, which in turn has helped foster a fast-growing startup ecosystem. All of this has made the city a magnet for young professionals with degrees in engineering, computer science, and other technical fields who are attracted by the combination of good jobs, revitalized diverse neighborhoods, and a dynamic arts and food scene.

As a result, Pittsburgh now faces a new set of issues. Some are practical and common to urban centers around the world where innovation is thriving, such as how to deal with rapid growth, rising housing costs, and the need for ongoing infrastructure improvement. Creating effective solutions to these challenges will be important for Pittsburgh to intensify its current strengths as it strives to expand its leadership role in technology and continue to be a great place to live.

Other issues are rooted in more fundamental questions of trust, privacy, ethics, and what role ever-more powerful technology should play in people’s lives. At Microsoft, we believe that finding answers to these questions is a task that requires broad participation from across society, including leaders from government, business, academia, advocacy organizations and nonprofits, and concerned citizens.

We also recognize that those who are at the forefront of research, development, and deployment of the technologies that are driving so much change bear a special responsibility for the impact that innovation is having on people’s lives. This notion—that companies bear a responsibility for the results of their work—shouldn’t be terribly controversial. But for a sector that has focused obsessively on rapid growth and sometimes pursued disruption as an end in itself, this could be viewed as changing what has been a common way to think about innovation. This raises another question: what does it mean for a technology company to embrace this responsibility?

In an era when AI is enabling computers to make decisions that have previously been made by humans, it begins by asking not just what computers can do, but also thinking much more seriously about what they should do. That leads to a need to understand and accept that there may be some things that computers should not do.

To do this in a thoughtful way, Microsoft has adopted an ethical framework for AI that we outlined in our book “The Future Computed.” This framework includes six principles: safety and reliability, privacy and security, fairness, inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability.

While all these ethical principles are important, privacy and security demand particular attention right now. In an era in which technology companies collect huge amounts of data, we have a clear responsibility to be transparent about how we use our customers’ personal information, rigorous in how we protect the security of the information we collect, and proactive in our efforts to help defend fundamental human rights such as privacy.

Microsoft’s call for the regulation of facial recognition is an example how our principles guide our work on AI-based technologies and solutions. As a company that is a leader in developing facial recognition technology, we know that it has wide range of beneficial applications, from identifying missing children to diagnosing rare diseases. But we also see significant risks, including the potential for new intrusions into people’s privacy, the danger that it will lead to outcomes that are biased, and the possibility that it might be used by governments in ways that encroach on democratic freedoms.

Facial recognition is just one area where the issues at stake are too important to be addressed solely by the technology industry. AI offers so much potential to serve as a catalyst for opportunity and growth. But to harness the full power of AI to deliver widespread social and economic benefits, we must address challenges that undermine trust in technology, including the use of cybertechnology as a weapon of war and the need to create an education system that fosters lifelong learning in the digital skills that will be essential for the jobs of today and the workforce of tomorrow.

This will take a combination of research, self-regulation, and government action, all with input and collaboration from across sectors. I believe the urgency for action is particularly acute in the world’s democracies, where a broad economic and social consensus is critical in a time when technology is such a disruptive force. Simply put, technology innovation is not going to slow down. Therefore, the work to manage it needs to speed up.

On the research side, there is a lot of exciting work going on right here in Pittsburgh that is part of the search for solutions. One is a project involving Carnegie Mellon and Microsoft Research that offers a new way to protect against cyberattacks by verifying the security of encrypted information. A pair of projects funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative brings researchers at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh together to explore whether new approaches to teaching and human-computer interaction can help improve outcomes in schools where math achievement has historically been lower than national averages.

Efforts like these will be critical as we move forward. So too are events like the inaugural Pittsburgh Tech & Data Summit that bring people together to deepen discussions about the steps we need to take to strengthen trust and adopt new frameworks that preserve fundamental rights and ensure that the benefits of the advanced technology are broadly available. At Microsoft, we look forward to participating in the kinds of conversations that events like the Pittsburgh Tech & Data Summit make possible as we strive be ensure that technology advances within a framework of respect for human dignity and with the goal of serving the greater good.