Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Book Review: "Tools and Weapons"

"Tools and Weapons" by Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne is a look at some important computing issues through a Microsoft lens. It is a pretty revealing look as the authors write seriously about the thinking behind Microsoft’s dealing with issues like the Snowden leaks, suits against the government about over reaching subpoenas, protection of users data, transparency, cyber security, and more.

I really like this line from the introduction "When your technology changes the world, you have a responsibility to help address the world you helped create."

There were several threads moving through the book. One was the need for building guiding principles for looking at technology and its uses. An other was the need for diversity among people developing technology and the guiding principles. There is frank talk about embedded bias in algorithms and how diversity is essential to fixing that problem. Responsibility for what technology does is another key thread. Without using these words, the book suggests that “should we” is as important if not more so than “can we.”

The chapters on Artificial Intelligence and facial recognition are the best look at the pros and cons I have read so far. Many people seem to have a doomsday view of AI but Smith and Browne have a more nuanced look; one that is not apocalyptic but more practical and near term. There is a lot to think about in these chapters but the picture painted is more about how we need to think about issues going forward than that we should either panic or be unconcerned.

I found the chapter on China very interesting. It was clearly written carefully to outline cultural and political differences without appearing to attack anyone. I might have preferred a stronger stance but I’m not the president of a global company.

One clear takeaway for me is that today’s Microsoft is not the same Microsoft as it was under Ballmer or Gates. Satya Nadella is a different sort of leader altogether and ethics and principles of a company are set at the top. Where Gates was naïve in some ways and Ballmer was focused on the bottom line Nadella, while not losing sight of the bottom line and still naïve in some ways (remember his gaffs about women getting ahead) looks at things differently, listens better, and is interested in the better good.

His decision to release Windows XP patches for the WannaCry virus for free is one I have to wonder if Ballmer would have made the same way. Maybe he would have but that I have to wonder is telling.

The book is not a difficult read. The language is non technical and technology is explained in layman’s terms. That is not to say that the book is only for non-technical people. I think technical people should read it. So should policy makers in both government and the private sector. It would make a great supplemental reading for an ethics course, especially for an ethics course for technical people.

One last interesting thought from the book. No one graduates from a US military academy without taking an ethics course but many people graduate with technical degrees without taking an ethics course. Maybe that should change.

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