An Excerpt from Bill Gates’ Foreword to Tools and Weapons – The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age

A book by Microsoft President Brad Smith

I first turned to Brad Smith for advice during the toughest time in my professional life. Two decades later, I haven’t stopped.

Brad joined Microsoft’s legal team in 1993, but we really got to know each other in the late 1990s, during the US government’s antitrust suit against the company. We spent countless hours working side by side. I could see right away what a sophisticated thinker he was. I came to like Brad as a person and to trust his judgment as a professional.

Brad shaped our legal strategy during the lawsuit, and then he did something else that was at least as important: He ushered in a big cultural and strategic shift at the company. That shift is at the heart of this book.

In the early days of Microsoft, I prided myself on how little time we spent talking to people in the federal government. I would tell people, “Isn’t it great that we can be successful and not even have an office in DC?” As I learned the hard way during the antitrust suit, this was not a wise position to take.

After the case was settled, Brad persuaded me and a lot of other people at Microsoft that we needed to take a different approach. Then he showed us how to make it happen. Brad is a lawyer, not a software developer, and although he has a great command of technology, he didn’t think quite the same way as the rest of us. (I mean this as a compliment.) He saw that we needed to put more time and energy into connecting with different constituencies, including the government, our partners, and sometimes even our competitors. Brad would have made a great diplomat, which makes sense given his early interest in international relations.

It says a lot about Brad that his thinking was not limited to Microsoft’s own self-interest. He recognized the central importance of technology and the policies that affect it, and he concluded that staying on the sidelines wasn’t just a mistake for our company – it was a mistake for the industry. Although there would be times when we would need to go it alone, there would be many others – for example, when artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and cybersecurity are involved – when we all have much more to gain from working with one another.

As he argues in this book, there are also times when it is in everyone’s interest for the government to step in with more regulation. (Brad is self-aware enough to see the irony of a business leader asking for more government rules, rather than fewer.) To that end, he knew that Microsoft and other tech companies needed to engage more with leaders in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. My days of bragging about not having an office in DC were over.

Although these are not the same questions we faced twenty years ago, the insights that Brad had back then are just as valuable today.

Take, for example, the issues raised by facial-recognition technology. This isn’t yet a big topic for public debate, but it will be. What limits should software companies put on the use of their facial recognition tools? How should the industry think about this, and what kind of government regulations make sense?

Brad has led the way in anticipating these questions and creating partnerships to discuss them. The tech industry will need to come together, working with customers and governments around the world. It may not be possible to get everyone on board, but if we let things fragment so that the rules vary hugely from country to country, it won’t be good for customers, the tech industry, or society.

— Bill Gates, April 2019