by Brad Smith
From the Editor: Brad Smith is the president of Microsoft. What he says and does has a significant effect on what a major contender in the field of technology will do. What his company does will help set the tone in an industry in which Microsoft is a major player. Here is what he said about technology built in service to people:
Thank you, Mark. The first thing I want to say is that as president of Microsoft on behalf of the team from Microsoft that is here with me in this room, and more importantly on behalf of the 140,000 people who work in our company across this country and around the world, we are honored to be with you today. Thank you for making room for us. [applause]
As you might expect, I want to say a little bit about technology. Technology is transforming our world. It is changing our future, but I want to talk about technology perhaps from a bit of an unexpected vantage point. I think the best way to understand what technology can do for the future is to learn from the past, and the best way to think about the importance of technology is not to focus on technology first but to think first about people.
When you think about the places that bring people together, the great intersections of the world, Las Vegas is one of them. It’s a little bit of Hollywood, it’s a little bit of Disneyland, it’s a little bit confusing, but it’s downright entertaining. I want to start with another great intersection. Just east of Paris there is a site that attracts 10 million people every year. It’s called Disneyland Paris. If you were to go, you would feel that you were in California or perhaps Orlando where the NFB has often met. But as good as Disneyland is, it’s not the best site in the region. If people would only go a few miles farther east, they would travel through gentle hills, amidst orchards and small vineyards, to a small town, a town of less than three thousand inhabitants. I’ve been there. The town is called Coupvray. As you travel through this town, you come to the end of a small street where there is a small house that is now a museum. It is a house that has stood for more than 200 years. In fact two centuries ago there was a man who lived and worked there. He built the technology products of his day, which happened to be harnesses for horses and carriages. He was a master craftsman. His name was Simon René Braille. As many of you may know, there came a day in 1812 when his three-year-old son went to Simon René’s workshop and pulled out a sharp tool to do what he had seen his father do, use it to cut a piece of leather. But there was an accident that day that changed his life. But because he was a person of unbelievable potential and ability, that young boy, that young man named Louis Braille took what happened in his life and changed the world. [applause]
By the time he was six years old he was in a local school, and by the time he was ten he was the best student in the class. He was such a promising young boy that his father took him on a trip to Paris. They went to Paris where Louis enrolled in what was then known as the Royal Institute for Blind Youth. It was not a very nice building. It was run down, it was dark, it was damp, it was poorly ventilated, and if you think that was bad, the food was even worse.
But just two years later this young promising student had the opportunity to learn from a new director of the Royal Institute, a reformer if you will. He came in, and he saw the potential in his young students. He not only improved the school; he took the students across Paris. He would take groups of a dozen blind students who were holding a rope and led by a sighted teacher. They would go to the Royal Botanical Gardens, and they would be given an opportunity to learn from everything that Paris had to offer. He brought in other people who could teach the students about new opportunities in the world. One was a gentleman named Charles Barbier from the French military. He had developed a new code that French soldiers were using to communicate in darkness at night. The most amazing thing was that it was a thirteen-year-old, Louis Braille, who said that that code could be taken and turned into something even better. It took Louis two years to perfect what we now know as the Braille language. As you all know, it created opportunities for people around the world. It is a story about a person, but it’s also in my view a story about technology. Because that is what the Braille language in many ways was: it was a leap forward in technology, and it was a leap forward that in so many ways illustrated what is to this day, two centuries later, perhaps one of the most fundamental tenets that goes into creating better technology with every type of disability in the world. It is encapsulated in a saying: nothing for us without us. That is what Louis Braille showed. [applause]
Like all great innovators and leaders, Louis Braille created a foundation on which others could stand. So it was almost exactly a century later in Canada that another young boy suffered an accident. He suffered this accident when he was seven years old, and by the time he turned fourteen, like Louis Braille, he too was blind. His name was Jacobus tenBroek. [applause] Like Louis Braille, he recognized that you can lose your sight, but that doesn’t mean that you lose your vision. As you all know, he went on to partner with Dr. Newel Perry and create one of the great movements, not just in this country but for the world, the movement that is reflected in this room, the movement that the world now knows as the National Federation of the Blind. [applause]
This movement too would connect with the world of technology. It was almost a half-century ago that Ray Kurzweil partnered with the National Federation of the Blind and created the first reading machine for the blind. It was based on that that people were inspired to go further and recognize that if there is a fundamental right in every democracy in the world, it is the right to vote and the right to make that right real for people who are blind. It took the creation of accessible voting machines. So that is what the NFB helped pioneer. [applause]
Of course it was the NFB’s work that led an expansion of this into the world of digital publishing and the need to promote literacy for the blind around the world in what is now known as the Marrakesh Treaty, a treaty that moves these rights forward for every community around the world. [applause]
It is amazing to see how far the world has come over two centuries, and yet it is equally amazing to think about how far we still have to go. Of course I never had the opportunity to meet Louis Braille or to meet Jacobus tenBroek. But just as tenBroek built on the foundation created by Braille, there are new leaders, new heroes, and heroines who are adding to and taking this foundation even higher. My personal favorite is someone I have had the opportunity to meet and get to know. Her name is Anne Taylor. [cheers] As many of you know, Anne started as a student at the Kentucky School for the Blind. Anne, in her day, had an aspiration, an aspiration that certainly speaks to all of us every day, all of us who work at Microsoft. Anne said that she wanted to learn computer science. It was not offered at the Kentucky School for the Blind, but it was offered at the public school nearby. So for part of the day Anne would go there, and she said that they had never worked with someone like her. They had never worked with a student who was blind. But as Anne is prone to do with so many people, she quickly won them over, and like Louis Braille she became the best student in the class.
Anne, as many of you know, would go on to college, would pursue this career, building on computer science, and ultimately recognize that it would become a career that would take her into this movement. It would bring her to the National Federation of the Blind. For twelve years Anne led the team here at the NFB as the director of access technology, promoting across the tech sector the need for companies like ours to better understand and better serve this community.
Ultimately there came a day when Anne’s phone rang, and on the other end was Microsoft’s head of accessibility, our chief accessibility officer, a woman who is here today, Jenny Lay-Flurrie. [applause] Like all good leaders, Jenny recognized talent and sought to recruit Anne. Thankfully, from my perspective, she succeeded. Her message to Anne was, “You’ve changed technology from the outside. Come join us and see what you can do on the inside.” Every day I am grateful that Anne took that offer.
There have been good years for Microsoft when it comes to accessibility, and there have been not-so-good years. There were even years when we took areas where we were ahead and fell behind. But over the course of this decade, in part based on feedback from Mark Riccobono and the incredible leadership he has provided in talking to companies like ours, in part listening to more of you, and in part based on the inside leadership of people like Anne, every year we have focused on getting better. One of the things I always tried to remind every product team at Microsoft is that this is a big community. As you all know, there are 300 million people in the world who are blind. Think about this for a moment. Think about the almost 3,300 people who are here, and yet each one of you, in an important way, is a voice for 100,000 more. It is a voice that, as you heard, needs to be heard, but it’s a voice that needs to be more than heard. It’s a voice that we need to listen to. [applause]
As I then remind our product team on so many days, there is no group more directly impacted by the next version of our product than the community of people who are blind. If we do our job well, we create new opportunities for people who are blind, and if we do our job poorly, we make people’s lives harder. That is what we always need to remember in every company that creates technology today. [applause]
I will say that I would like to think we are getting better. I hope you see this. I hope that you feel this when you use our products. Certainly with Windows we’ve worked to improve the screen-reading technology. We now have a fully functioning built-in free screen reader with a new QuickStart feature to help people learn more quickly how to put this to work. We are investing in new low-vision tools, things like bigger and brighter points, and smoother magnifiers. We are partnering with our peers who also do important work and in many ways great work across the industry. One sees this reflected in new advances like the Braille HID standard with Apple. We recognize that we are not a company that can make progress alone. We need to contribute every day to an incredibly powerful ecosystem of competitors and partners and companies old and new, large and small. We need to keep taking this into our other products as we’re doing with Office in our accessibility checker. So too are we doing this with artificial intelligence, using the power of this new technology in embedded ways with suggestions to make processes quicker and more accessible for people with all types of disabilities. We need to look beyond the features and the products that people use today and fundamentally ask ourselves the same question that Louis Braille asked himself: How can we imagine new technology that can fundamentally improve people’s lives in ways that they haven’t yet experienced?
There are a number of initiatives taking place across the Microsoft campus near Seattle. My personal favorite is one that is called Seeing AI. [applause] As many of you obviously know, with the power of a camera and a phone, and the ability of that phone to connect with the cloud, and the ability of technology to harness artificial intelligence, every phone can become a powerful new tool to help people navigate their lives each and every day. Like the innovation that was reflected in Louis Braille’s work two centuries ago, my favorite image of the development of that product is the photograph of Anne Taylor, who was part of the original team who helped put it together and helped figure out how to make that product work. She walked around Microsoft with a smart phone attached with duct tape to her forehead. [laughter] People sometimes have to do amazing things to move technology forward.
That, in part, is our future. But it is not a future of technology alone. It’s a future of partnerships—new partnerships that we’re forging through a new program called AI for Accessibility. This program is now investing millions of dollars a year to put technology into the hands of groups around the world, nonprofits and the like, who can then use our resources and technical expertise to help discover their own advances. It will take the kinds of partnerships that we’ve been so fortunate to have the opportunity to forge with Mark and the leadership of the NFB to stand up for the needs of people with disabilities across this country. We’ve done that in Washington, DC; we’ve done that in state capitols; and we’re doing it at Microsoft itself as well as with our suppliers. That’s why we as a company first made a commitment to ourselves, for our own employees, and last week we expanded that commitment to reach the employees of our suppliers as well. What we said when we looked at the people and the jobs at Microsoft and our suppliers was really straightforward. We are saying now to our suppliers: “If you want to work with us, you have to pay people the minimum wage.” [applause]
So as I think about the future, I think about how all these strands can come together. It is a future where technology can take us forward. It is a future where technology companies need to put people who are blind and people who have other disabilities at the center of everything we do. Because if we serve this community well, frankly we’re going to serve every community well. [applause] It is a future that will require that Mark and all of you continue to do what you do so well: use your voice, raise your voice, call our Disability Answer Desk; operators are standing by. We have received over a million calls since 2012. There are days when your feedback is tough; there are days when you share with us your disappointments. But keep doing it. It is what makes us better. [applause]
If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that this is a community that has important things to say. You need to be heard, and we need to listen. [applause]
So in conclusion I would say this: we all come together in Las Vegas in 2019 in a time that often feels pretty tumultuous. There are many days in our country when it feels that people disagree with each other more than they agree. There are even days when it feels that people are shouting at each other more than listening to each other. But we need to have the vision to pursue a brighter future. So many times I believe the best way to imagine a brighter future is to think about the journey that we must continue to pursue that will build on the best journeys of the past. When I think about that, I think about the journey that Louis Braille put all of us on two centuries ago. I think about the journey that a century ago the NFB put us all on together. I think about the Anne Taylor’s of Microsoft and across the tech sector in the NFB, and I say there is not only cause for hope, there is reason for optimism. Let us build on this ability to work together and let us do what it takes to stay committed to this journey and build on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Thank you very much. [applause]