By Jeff John Roberts and Adam Lashinsky
December 6, 2018

Last summer the president of Microsoft, Brad Smith, published a nearly 4,000-word manifesto on a seemingly narrow topic, the need for the U.S. government to regulate facial recognition technology. He might instead have suggested a review of all artificial intelligence applications. Or he might have zeroed in on other A.I.-related fields, like autonomous vehicles.

Instead, in the extraordinary document, Smith argues that facial recognition is too powerful, too useful, and too potentially scary to leave to technology companies to self-regulate. It’s a cogent piece and also educational. It explains that while the rudimentary tools of facial recognition have been around for a while, the powerful rise of A.I. and the cloud, in which Microsoft is one of the leading technology suppliers, have made its regulation a pressing concern.

Smith stakes an avowedly moral position for regulation. “It may seem unusual for a company to ask for government regulation of its products, but there are many markets where thoughtful regulation contributes to a healthier dynamic for consumers and producers alike,” he writes. He notes that auto manufacturers resisted regulation for years, only to see that rules around seat belts, air bags and fuel efficiency save lives and improve the environment.

The Microsoft president, a lawyer who is also the company’s chief legal officer, frames much of his essay in the form of questions, as in, “How should we be thinking about this unique problem?” He appears to be ready to answer some of his queries. He’ll give an address Thursday afternoon at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., livestreamed here, on the topic.

I’ll be curious to know how Microsoft views its regulatory advocacy as a competitive weapon against companies with less of a regulatory history than Microsoft. It’s also worth noting Smith is focused squarely on regulation in the United States and the behavior and responsibilities of the U.S. government. The word China, a place where many of Smith’s darkest fears about facial recognition already are being realized, does not appear in his July manifesto.

Adam Lashinsky


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