“Today’s technology issues are far broader and deeper than they were twenty years ago. We’ve reached a critical inflection point for both technology and society – a time that beckons with opportunity, but that also calls for urgent steps to address pressing problems,” claims Brad Smith in the introduction of his book. He assumes that the companies that create technologies must accept greater responsibility for the future. To guarantee that the solutions they make shape a better future for societies, self-regulation and government action are required.
“Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age” cover fifteen different issues, from public safety, privacy, social media, ethics to the influence of AI on the workforce, tech superpowers of China and USA, to democracy and digital diplomacy. Although many books address a similar topic, Brad Smith raises essential questions following the challenges that Microsoft has faced in its business activities. And often, these are difficult choices between self-interest, profit, ethical dilemmas, external pressures, and long-term consequences. However, the perspective of the author, the President of Microsoft, perfectly reflects the role played by large technology companies in the modern world and the authorities they hold.
On the one side, the book can be perceived as a perfect PR campaign for the big tech company that, after all, has many ethically and legally questionable activities in its portfolio. Microsoft has been the subject of numerous lawsuits. Bill Gates’ Microsoft was fined for monopolistic practices in Europe, and it cooperated with the Chinese government in implementing a system for internet censorship. In 2019, the company faced protests against the contract to develop virtual reality headsets for the US Army. Recently, in May 2020, the tech giant has decided to replace many MSN journalists with an artificial intelligence system. How do such actions relate to the opinion presented in the book that “one goal is to harness AI and create new technology that will help people work better”?
The list of scandals is much longer, but it does not take away the author’s mandate to draw smart visions of a better, digitalized tomorrow. It only shows the gap between fair and ethical business and profits needed for expansion. In the globalized world’s economy, primarily focused on the competition and not on sustainable growth, many companies that follow utopian principles don’t survive long. Maybe we should start by solving this principal problem.
The world has turned information technology into both a powerful tool and a formidable weapon
Microsoft alone will not save the world. Brad Smith is asking tough questions. Sometimes he gives answers and calls to more industry regulation. However, many times he doesn’t find the solution, because the future cannot be fully predicted. For example, in terms of the impact of artificial intelligence on the labor market. Often the suggestions are so general that they are giving only an idea of where to start without drawing a roadmap. This is the case when he says that “well-informed and broad-minded leadership needs to translate into more proactive steps at individual tech companies and also more collaboration across the tech sector as a whole.”
Apart from the fact that the book presents only situations where Microsoft’s decisions arouse our sympathies, it gives a deep insight into the connections between business, politics, and economy. It allows us to better understand what dilemmas technology companies face, how many spheres need to be regulated in order for their business activities to be based on values important to people. It is also a fascinating journey behind the scenes of Microsoft’s life and high-level meetings like those with Prime Minister Theresa May, Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Barack Obama, President of China Xi Jinping, or Pope Francis.
Brad Smith explains consumer privacy issues on the example of GDPR, presents the background of lawmaking recalling the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data (CLOUD). He shows the devastating impact of cyber-attacks like WannaCry, explains what the so-called techplomacy or digital diplomacy is, pictures the power of data in the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, makes aware of social media threats analyzing the Cambridge Analytica data misuse. There are a number of case studies that we probably know from the headlines in the press, but we have never had the opportunity to explore them in detail. Smith has the talent to tell the stories in a captivating way. Technology, new laws, data breaches, meetings, and negotiations are only the scenes to let us think about the essential values and the world that we want to live in. He explains even the most sophisticated challenges like data operability or historical context of a different approach to technology development in the USA and China using terminology understood by everybody.
“Technology innovation is not going to slow down. The work to manage it needs to speed up,” concludes the author. In the case of developing dynamically new technologies, it may turn out that the speed with which new problems arise is higher than the speed of addressing already known challenges. In order to ensure that the technology does not lead to irreversible, adverse changes, but rather to sustainable economic growth with benefits for everyone, it cannot be left to keep developing on its own. Reading this book helps to understand why we should change the way we see the role of technology.