How Technology Is Changing Our Lives

Appleton native and Microsoft exec Brad Smith comes here preaching the new gospel.

By - Nov 16th, 2016 12:07 pm
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Brad Smith. Photo from Marquette University.

Brad Smith. Photo from Marquette University.

Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith was in town yesterday to share advice for how to boost the entrepreneurial scene and tech industry in Milwaukee and beyond. The Appleton native and Columbia University Law School graduate was here to speak “On the Issues” with Mike Gousha at Marquette University Law School, but his day actually got started before that.

In the morning Smith met with the local startup scene. Then came the 12:15 forum when he was interviewed by Gousha. Smith later led a lecture at MU with attorneys as the primary audience on intellectual property law and policy.

“Technology is not just changing quickly, it’s changing every part of society, ever part of our lives” as, “every business is becoming a digital experience,” he declared during the interview with Gousha.

The Microsoft leader spoke, not always quotably, of how technological innovations could reduce costs and potentially save lives. For instance, legal advice which can now be difficult and expensive to get could be provided through advanced computer systems with voice recognition software. Other tasks could also be automated. To reduce accidental hospital deaths, something Smith cited as the third largest cause of fatalities in the nation, computers with advanced software and a camera could (in the near future, he suggested) observe surgeons and ensure they don’t miss any steps during surgical procedures.

Such advancements in automation, of course, could displace workers. Workforce disruption was a topic which came up in the discussions and is of course relevant to the recent presidential election. “We need to move technology forward without leaving people behind,” Smith stressed.

He emphasized lifelong learning for people as the American economy continues to shift, suggesting only this could assure workers aren’t left behind.

The question of how to develop more high technology businesses in the state was also discussed. Both Milwaukee and the state have been criticized as unwelcoming places for entrepreneurs, and scholars at UW-Madison have projected the state falling behind in producing the types of high wage jobs typical of advanced technology.

Madison has by far has the edge in new growth industries. With the strength of the state university system’s flagship UW-Madison, the capitol city within the past 10 years has developed industrial clusters in the healthcare, biotech, and information technology. Its growth is epitomized by the healthcare database company Epic Systems which is the largest individual employer in Dane County.

Milwaukee by comparison is still rooted in traditional manufacturing. But that can become a base for technological innovation. The direction of economic growth in North America and Europe appears to be in advanced research and technology from former manufacturing giants.  Antoine van Agtmael and Fred Bakker argue just this in The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation.

Milwaukee has developed clusters in energy technology and most notably water technology. The city has received international recognition from the United Nations for its Water Council in Walker’s Point. UW-Milwaukee’s WATER Institute serves as a crucial research base in support of the water tech cluster.

How can Milwaukee develop into a hotspot of its own and grow its own companies like Epic Systems? At the most basic level, Smith emphasized promoting individuals’ curiosity and encouraging knowledge of the planet’s diversity of peoples. He said he was proud of the opportunity to engage with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and see her great interest in how technological development would affect Germany and the world.

“Curiosity, is I think one of the most powerful traits in the world,” Smith said. Such curiosity, he believes, should be channeled into entrepreneurialism in incubator spaces in Milwaukee, in the same way it fueled new start-ups in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley.

Smith also encouraged people to plan far into the future. “Focus first on the long term, it eventually arrives,” he said. Meanwhile the private and public sectors should “develop the capacity to get through short term bumps.”

Among more specific recommendations, Smith stressed the need to align the state’s secondary and post-secondary education with workforce needs.

Smith noted a jobs gap both in Wisconsin and nationally between positions needed and what schools are producing. He lamented that too few graduates are coming out of Wisconsin’s universities to fill 890 job openings in computer science (of 7,699 such jobs statewide). He noted that only 80 of 500 high schools statewide have advanced placement programs in computer science.

After high school more Wisconsinites need to gain certificates emphasizing “middle skills” from the technical college system and more advanced STEM-oriented degrees from four-year colleges, Smith urged. He repeatedly cited a statistic that since 1989 jobs requiring bachelor’s and two-year degrees have increased by 107 and 47 percent respectively.

Lastly, being a lawyer, Smith had much to say regarding American law and policy. He spoke of Microsoft’s legal battles with the federal government regarding consumer protection. Smith believes that laws governing privacy and intellectual property, passed in the 1980s, have not caught up with the level of technical advancement in the succeeding decades. He encouraged lawyers present to brainstorm how the law might accommodate artificial intelligence in the future. It was all part of one clear message: Smith has seen the future and it’s all about technology.

Ken Smith is a Milwaukee native and graduate student at UW-Wisconsin- Madison in the LaFollette School of Public Affairs and Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

Categories: Business

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