SEATTLE — Satya Nadella has a request for his peers in high technology: You have the tools to build a dystopian society. Don’t do it.
The Microsoft chief executive took time during a speech last week at the company’s Build developer show, flanked by slides showing George Orwell’s “1984,” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” to ask technologists to think through the social implications of what they’re building.
“What Orwell prophesied in ‘1984,’ where technology was being used to monitor, control, dictate, or what Huxley imagined we may do just by distracting ourselves without any meaning or purpose. Neither of these futures is something that we want,” Nadella said. “So the question is, what are we going to do? What are the practical ways we can make progress?”
Nadella was short on practical prescriptions for that, but he outlined a basic principle.
“Building trust in technology is crucial,” he said. “It starts with us taking accountability. Accountability for the algorithms we create.”
Quietly, Nadella has staked out a reputation as a cautious technologist in a world of starry-eyed Silicon Valley utopians.
The reasoned approach is partly a business pitch. As Microsoft reshapes itself as a company that sells software accessed on the web, rather than on a nearby PC, faith that such software is secure from prying eyes becomes paramount.
It’s also a sign that Nadella, a more openly introspective leader than his predecessor, Steve Ballmer, is developing his own philosophy for where the company and the industry should go in his fourth year as Microsoft’s CEO.
“Satya Nadella had to earn position to speak to and for entire industry like he is right now,” Ben Thompson, a technology analyst who has worked at both Microsoft and Apple, said on Twitter. He “couldn’t have made this speech three years ago.”
At an education-focused product launch in New York earlier this month, Nadella cautioned that the infusion of technology wouldn’t improve educational outcomes on its own. Citing a book by former Microsoft researcher Kentaro Toyama, he said motivated teachers and a society that supports and values education are just as important as technology.
And at a speech in Seattle a year ago, the Microsoft chief executive warned about jobs that might disappear as a result of increased industrial automation and smart software.
“The choices that we as developers are going to make have pretty profound implications,” Nadella said last week.