“Reprogramming the American Dream” … Microsoft’s CTO Kevin Scott takes inspiration from his rural roots in search of a new vision for AI

May 29, 2020

Having spent much of the last year working with Microsoft, helping them to reframe and reenergise their focus on their markets, it dawned on me how important their acquisition of LinkedIn was a few years ago.

While $26 billion might seem a hefty sum for what might seem like a side business, I don’t see it that way.

Networks are the future of tech companies. Networks are what connect people, and it’s in those relationships that value is created. Value in the form of co-created content, value in the form of mutual opportunities, value in new sources of revenue. And the exponential effect of networks, means that as the network grows, that value multiplies.

Maybe it’s not surprising then, that the tech geek behind Reid Hoffman’s brainchild, Kevin Scott, was the man chosen by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to be the new CTO of the combined Microsoft group. As Nadella urged a shift to cloud and AI solutions, as core Microsoft services to business, then Scott would have the insight into how to make these capabilities work for Microsoft in an exponential way.

Now, as Microsoft’s chief technology officer, and executive vice president of AI and Research, Scott has authored a new book, “Reprogramming the American Dream: From Rural America to Silicon Valley, Making AI Serve Us All.

The book, published by Harper Collins is a great read. Here is Chapter 1.

In the book, Scott goes back to his roots in rural Virginia, making the case that there is a middle ground between the extreme viewpoints about the future of artificial intelligence — one in which short-term disruption is followed by long-term benefits as technology augments and improves human endeavours.

In a recent interview, Scott reflected on the messages in his new book, and also the implications of where we are now, in the midst of a pandemic. Here are some extracts:

On his rural upbringing:

“When we began the process of writing the book, one of the first things that I did was take a trip back home to rural Central Virginia, where my family still lives, and I still have a ton of friends and family. I had this ‘aha’ moment as soon as I started chatting with people. These are some of the most ingenious and industrious people that I have ever known.

“And they have always been able to take the tools that were available to them and create really interesting things to make businesses that did good things for their customers, that created jobs, that created benefits for their communities, that helped individuals fulfill their creative or entrepreneurial visions, and really let them do incredible and compelling things.

“It just became immediately obvious to me that they were going to be able to do great things with AI.”

On democratising AI:

“Because of open source software and cloud platforms and all of the educational materials that are available online, a motivated high school student could do what was a difficult thing for me, that took six months 16 years ago. They could do it in two days, over a weekend. The tools are there.”

“The things that we have to go solve in these communities are about access. How do you get kids educated, where they have the skills they need to participate in the digital future, to be able to take what is already available to them in terms of these AI tools and build things and create opportunity for themselves?  How do you get them the role models that they need to see themselves in these jobs of the future?

“And then how do we solve things that should be prosaic at this point but that still are still barriers, like broadband access for everyone? You can’t expect businesses or individuals to be able to connect themselves to a digital future when they can’t connect to the internet.”

On AI and future jobs:

“If you look over very, very long periods of time, technology and automation is almost always a good thing for society. We’ve benefited from fire and agriculture and our existing industrial base, and we will benefit from AI, as well.

“There’s this pattern that happens when a new disruptive technology comes along. There are going to be jobs, for sure, that are impacted, but I think it’s actually more complicated than people imagine. Just thinking about it as a cost cutting tool is a colossal failure of imagination. How can this be a tool that enhances and augments human beings to let them do more of what they are truly great at? That’s the right way to think about AI.”

On the Covid-19 pandemic:

“We have a sobering set of circumstances right now, both in terms of the human cost of the virus and the economic impacts. We’re very fortunate that we have a technology infrastructure that allows us to remotely collaborate with our colleagues. Software development has been trending in this direction for a long while, where you can do virtually a lot of your work now, even from an operations perspective, in the cloud.”

“I don’t think that the pace of innovation, at least in software and biosciences, slows down as a consequence of this. I think if anything, what you’re going to see is, when you come out the other end of this, we will have the conditions for even more innovation than we’ve ever seen before in both of these areas, just because there’s going to be so much investment and such a very, very important and urgent need from the public for all of this stuff, the technology infrastructure and our capabilities with healthcare and pharmaceuticals, to get much, much better much more quickly.”