A conversation with Kevin Scott, author of “Reprogramming the American Dream”

Scott standing in front of a white background
Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott. Photo by Brian Smale.

Artificial intelligence is already changing virtually every aspect of our lives, from how we communicate with each other to how we grow our food, and technology experts believe we are just at the beginning of understanding how AI could expand people’s capabilities.

In his new book, “Reprogramming the American Dream,” Kevin Scott, Microsoft’s chief technology officer, looks at how he went from a childhood in rural Virginia to being a leader in the field of AI – and why he thinks there is ample opportunity for people from all walks of life to take advantage of AI to achieve the American dream.

We recently had the opportunity to talk to him about his life, book and career.

You’ve written a new book. What’s it about?

The book is essentially about how we should all think about artificial intelligence as this incredibly powerful tool that we can choose to use to build a better future for all of us and how, in particular, I think artificial intelligence can be really beneficial for folks who live and work in rural and middle America.

How did your upbringing in rural America inform your perspective about the technology industry?

I think I’ve had a lot of good luck over the course of my life. The first bit of good luck was being born to a family and a community in rural, central Virginia, in this little town called Gladys, where I had all of these role models around me who were inventive and creative and tinkerers and entrepreneurs and folks with tons of grit.

I had not just parents but an entire family structure that was super supportive. We didn’t have much. We were sort of a paycheck-to-paycheck family and had moments of true financial hardship throughout my childhood, but my brother and I never even thought that we were lacking anything. And I had this gigantic curiosity that my parents, in a whole bunch of different ways, tried to support.

I remember one of the things that my mom did really early on — I was such a voracious reader, and I don’t know whether folks remember this, but we used to have door-to-door encyclopedia salespeople, and so the World Book Encyclopedia salesperson came to our house one day, and my mom, even though we didn’t have much money, put the World Book Encyclopedias on a payment plan. And I would go into the living room by myself as a little kid and pull these books off of the shelf one by one and just read the encyclopedia. And it was just an incredible thing, given our circumstances, that my mom and dad would’ve done that for me.

How did your dad influence some of the choices that you made later in life?

My dad was maybe the most important role model in my life. He was an awesome, awesome dad, and some of the most important things I learned from him by example. He experienced a bunch of failure, but every time he would just dust himself off, stand back up and go back at it. And that resilience and grit is just such an important thing to have if you are attempting to do something hard or something that’s right outside of the boundaries of your experience. You’re going to fail a lot, and he just taught me that it’s not the worst thing in the world to fail as long as you’re able to pick yourself up and start moving forward again.

But one of the funniest stories about my dad is he was just super determined that I was not going to go into the family business. My great-grandfather, my grandfather and my dad were all in construction, and I went to work for him when I was a teenager. And he would give me the most miserable jobs in the world, like carrying sheaves of shingles up and down a ladder onto hot roofs all day long or running jackhammers to break up basement floors or pushing wheelbarrows full of bricks up hills. He just wanted to show me how hard that life was.

The interesting thing was it actually taught me how much beauty and dignity there was in all of that work. And my hobbies, funny enough, are all very close to this stuff that he did. I love woodworking, I love building things, I love working with my hands.

The really hilarious thing, as he was giving me all of this miserable work, is that I had already decided that I was really, really interested in computers and programming, and I knew that I wanted to go to college. I kept telling him that and he still kept giving me this crap work.

Kevin Scott’s book, Reprogramming the American Dream, will be available Tuesday, April 7.

Do you feel like you achieved the American dream?

Yeah, I think so. I think a big part of the American dream is that you come into society as a child and you are equipped with an education and a set of experiences that prepare you to go do something interesting and valuable in the world, and that you don’t have a set of systemic barriers standing in your way of achieving those goals.

I got a really good education. I went to a really good science and technology Governor’s School in central Virginia. I wish there were more kids who had that opportunity, because it just gave me the conviction to go on to actually earn a set of computer science degrees. And I never felt like I had enormous impediments in my way.

In your book, you raise the idea that technology such as AI can help people in rural America achieve the American dream. How?

When I left academia and took my first job in industry, I did this machine learning project where I had to sit down with a stack of research papers and a bunch of textbooks filled with not necessarily accessible mathematics, and I spent six months coding to build the system that, at the time, did a very useful thing with machine learning.

The machine learning tools are so powerful now that a motivated high school kid could do that same project in maybe a weekend. And that’s an amazing realization to have because it basically means that anybody can pick up these tools and use them to do interesting things.

When I think about the people that I grew up with, these are some of the most ingenious people that I know. I mean, this community is just full of scrappy people who are using all of the tools that are available to them to make a better future for themselves.

And now, they have this new tool which may be the most powerful tool that we’ve ever built. And it’s so exciting to think about what people will do with these tools who are in different contexts and come at problem solving from different angles than those of us who are in the technology industry.

What do you think needs to happen structurally in order for folks in this country who aren’t in the technology industry to see those benefits?

We should do a better job teaching kids the basic concepts of computer science and engineering and machine learning when they’re in middle and high school.

Machine learning makes it so much easier to do sophisticated things with computers than the traditional tools of programming. We have this tool that we are developing internally right now that allows anyone to build computer vision models, and it’s easy enough that my nine-year-old or 11-year-old can use it to easily train a computer vision model to perform a vision task.

So, I think the argument that AI is too complicated for people to get ramped up on is actually not true. I think, in a way, AI is going to turn the task of getting computers to do things for you from a programming task into a teaching task. And we all know how to teach someone how to do a thing. It’s an innate part of our human set of capabilities. And so I think we should definitely be teaching more of these concepts in high school.

And if you want people to be able to participate in the digital economy, you have to, in these rural communities, have broadband.

That’s why things like Microsoft’s Airband program, that’s using some of the white space spectrum that is no longer being used by broadcast television to carry data, is a really fantastic thing. For kids and businesses and workers to be digitally fluent, they have to have network connectivity. You just can’t expect them to fully participate in this new emerging economy without this very basic bit of infrastructure.

AI is going to turn the task of getting computers to do things for you from a programming task into a teaching task. And we all know how to teach someone how to do a thing.

You also acknowledged in the book that change is hard and scary for people. What needs to happen in order to get people to make that leap to embracing something like AI?

I think it’s really difficult, especially when you’re a kid, to imagine yourself doing something that’s abstract. You look at the people around you and you look at what they’re doing and there’s almost this momentum in the career choices that you make. A huge number of people choose to do the same things that their parents or members of their family or the members of their close community do.

They have to have role models, and one of the things that I wanted to say with the book is, “Hey, I came from exactly where you all did. Being born and raised in rural and middle America, it is a perfectly acceptable and reasonable and possible path for you to go have a job in tech.”

And you can have a job in tech, I think, now more so than when I was growing up, staying exactly where you are.

Tell me a little bit more about that.

For example, there are a bunch of really great tech jobs near where I grew up. There’s a Microsoft data center in Boydton, Virginia, hours away from my hometown, where there are hundreds of high-tech jobs that are well-paying and extremely interesting. That didn’t exist in the 90s when I was a kid. Even in Lynchburg, which is the nearest big town to Gladys, there’s a bunch of industry there now that wasn’t there when I was a kid.

I ended my book chatting with this young man, Hunter Bass, who’s the son of one of my friends from school. And he got a degree in computer engineering and decided to stay in Lynchburg and he’s got a job that he loves.

I think more and more of those opportunities exist all the time because it’s easier than ever to do your work in the distributed fashion where the physical place of where you’re doing a thing is less important than your ability to have access to infrastructure that you can use to connect yourself to people doing the things that you want to do.

One of the things that I wanted to say with the book is, ‘Hey, I came from exactly where you all did. Being born and raised in rural and middle America, it is a perfectly acceptable and reasonable and possible path for you to go have a job in tech.’

You said in your book that you wanted to explore the future of technology in a way that is neither dystopian nor utopian. Can you talk about some of the challenges that you see as we move toward this more AI-centric world?

I think we have the same set of challenges with AI that you have with any very powerful new technology. My favorite analogy is the development of the steam engine in the late 18th century. It’s the first large-scale substitute for human labor – a single machine could do work that lots and lots of human beings would have had to do by hand before.

In the beginning of the development of the steam engine, the people to whom value accrued to immediately were folks who had capital and folks who had expertise. If you had money you could build a factory around one of these steam engines and build a business that was way more efficient than the business making a similar set of things completely manually.

And then you had this big disruption that moved through the workforce. The very nature of work was changed by the onset of this new technology, and it took a while for things to settle out.

Now, you look at engines and they’re a ubiquitous tool that everybody has in their arsenal for making things, and eventually that is what we will have with artificial intelligence. And the question is, what does the transition period look like?

My argument – the reason that I wrote the book, the reason that I do the job that I do at Microsoft – is that I think we need to collectively be doing everything in our power to democratize access to these tools, so that my friends and family and the people that I admire in these small communities have just as much access to these tools as I do. Because I have infinite amounts of faith in their ability to go do amazing things once they have the access.

I think that is ultimately the thing that really does make sure that we have fair and inclusive decision-making about what the trajectory of the future looks like, powered by more and more AI over time. And it is certainly the way that you get more equitable distribution of the benefits of AI.

Last question. I’m curious what you learned while writing this book.

It forced me to look at AI and its potential impacts in a different way. I was very much in the same opinion pool as many of my colleagues and peers and friends in the tech industry about what the trajectory of AI looked like and what its impact was going to be on the future of work. The book gave me an opportunity to go do some research, and more importantly to go talk to a whole bunch of people and remind myself how awesomely creative and inventive people are, no matter where they live.

Top image: In his new book, Kevin Scott discusses how AI can benefit Americans in areas such as rural Virginia, shown above. Photo by Walter Arnold Photography/Getty Images.