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Microsoft president begs tech industry to improve its ethics

Speaking at Microsoft’s first CES keynote in 10 years, President Brad Smith said that national security is threatened by the industry’s inability to learn lessons from the past.

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Microsoft President Brad Smith said that industry leaders need to make sure that new technology, especially artificial intelligence, works for the good of humanity, not for evil

Image: TechRepublic

Microsoft President Brad Smith started the Wednesday sessions at CES 2021 with two history lessons. The first was about a less well-known line in President John F. Kennedy’s famous moon speech. The second was about how ’80s classic War Games inspired the first national security directive on computer security.

Smith’s big message was that humans need to stay in control of the technology we create. His second call to arms was about cybersecurity and the need for the entire world to set and enforce codes of conduct.

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Smith said the SolarWinds attack broke all norms of acceptable behavior.

“It was a mass, indiscriminate global assault on the global supply chain that all of us are responsible for protecting,” he said. “This is a danger that the world cannot afford.”

He also described the cyberattacks on hospitals and other healthcare organizations as another unacceptable incident, actions that should be off limits at all times but especially during a pandemic.

“If we don’t use our voice to hold the governments of the world to a higher standard, who will?” he said.

Smith started his virtual session with the story of how War Games got President Ronald Reagan thinking about computer security. The movie features a hacker playing thermonuclear war with the government supercomputer that controls America’s weapons. At first, Matthew Broderick’s character David Lightman doesn’t understand who his opponent is. The computer doesn’t understand that Lightman’s attack moves aren’t real. The 1983 movie accurately predicted several problems that the tech industry and society at large are living with right now. The first is the security risk of weak passwords, and the second is the threat of humans losing control of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms.

After Reagan watched a movie about America hitting the brink of nuclear war thanks to a computer, he asked his advisors if this could really happen, Smith said. These conversations led to the first national directive about computer security.

Smith also said that it’s clear Americas haven’t learned the biggest lesson from the 9/11 attacks, that data sharing is vital to national security. He said tech leaders need to change the default approach to sharing information from “need to know only” to one that shares data proactively.

“The last month has shown us how we all need to work together in new ways to protect the cybersecurity of the planet,” he said.

Smith also drew on the actions of another president to remind the CES 2021 audience that technology has no conscience but humans do. Kennedy laid out the risk and the responsibility inherent in technology during his famous speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 12, 1962. Smith played a clip of this line from the speech:

“For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man… .”

This risk, identified almost 60 years ago, is still a huge challenge for the industry and all of society, Smith said.

“Every day when we go to work, we will decide whether tech is used for good or ill,” he said. “Technology has no conscience but people do and we must exercise our conscience.”

Science is catching up with science fiction, Smith said, and humans are at risk of losing control of the technology we have created.

“As we think about AI and all its promise, we have to think as well about the new guardrails we have to create so that humanity remains in control of our tech,” he said.

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