Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Kevin Scott rise to his current post is about as unlikely as you will find. He grew up in Gladys, Virginia, a town of a few hundred people. He loved his family and his hometown to such an extent that he did not aspire to leave. He caught the technology bug in the 1970s by chance, and that passion would provide a ticket to bigger places that he did not initially seek. The issue was one of opportunity. In his formative years, jobs were decreasing in places like Gladys just as they were increasing dramatically in tech hubs like Silicon Valley. After pursuing a PhD in computer science at the University of Virginia, he left in 2003 prior to completing his dissertation to join Google. He would rise to become a Senior Engineering Director there. He left Google for LinkedIn in 2011. He would eventually rise to become the Senior Vice President of Engineering & Operations at LinkedIn. From LinkedIn he joined Microsoft three and a half years ago as CTO. He is deeply satisfied with the course of his career and its trajectory, but part of him laments that it took him so far from his roots and the hometown that he loves.
As he reflected further on this conundrum, he put his thoughts to paper and published the book, Reprogramming the American Dream in April, co-authored by Greg Shaw. As he noted in a conversation I recently had with him, “Silicon Valley is a perfectly wonderful place, but we should be able to create opportunity and prosperity everywhere, not just in these coastal urban innovation centers.” Scott believes that machine learning and artificial intelligence will be key ingredients to aiding an entrepreneurial rise in smaller towns across the United States. These advances will place less of a burden on companies to hire employees in the small towns, as some technical development will be conducted by the bots. He also hopes that as some of these businesses blossom, more kids will be inspired to start their own businesses powered by technology, creating a virtuous cycle of sorts.
The biggest impediment to this dream boils down to more basic elements, however. “There is just no way that you can reasonably educate your kids and attract and retain really great employees to these jobs and to even run the businesses themselves unless you have good broadband connectivity in all of these places,” notes Scott. “25 million people in the United States do not have adequate access to broadband. 19 million of those are in these rural communities. So that is something we definitely have to fix.” Scott also says that there must be redoubled efforts for venture capitalists to invest in businesses in non-traditional towns and cities. He highlights the work that Steve Case has done with his Rise of the Rest Seed Fund through Revolution Capital. Scott underscores that venture capital is not enough. It will require a private public partnership. “I think we could choose to say that we want to pick one of these big, hairy, audacious goals that AI technologies and machine learning could help reach and pour a little bit of our national wealth into this in a coordinated way,” says Scott. “[We can] create a great collaboration between private companies, the academy and the government to solve a big problem for the public good like, potentially, ubiquitous high quality, low-cost health care. We could do something that is even better than the Apollo program.”
Some might think that artificial intelligence is too esoteric and complicated to teach to children so that they are fluent enough to leverage the technology of the future. Scott argues otherwise. He says, “If we can harness this ability that we have to teach each other, we can certainly teach machines how to solve problems, which makes programming or harnessing a computer’s power even more accessible than it has ever been and certainly a thing and a set of skills that are absolutely approachable for even very young kids.” Scott and his wife have created the Scott Foundation, which helps create opportunities for children to achieve self-sufficiency and lifelong success. Not so surprisingly, Scott believe technology is a major ingredient of that future success, as well. His day job and his foundation work are sources of optimism. At a time when many lament that the rise of artificial intelligence will eliminate many jobs, Scott believes those losses will be more than offset by those new businesses created in all corners of the United States leveraging AI and other technical advances.