Microsoft’s Smith: N.J. is positioned to be leader in AI — but it must lead with humility and for humanity

In inspirational keynote at NJAI Summit at Princeton, alum details the opportunities state has — and responsibilities that come with it

After he so perfectly described how the impact of artificial intelligence on humanity may only be analogous to the invention of the printing press — how AI, like the printing press, has the ability to not only create a new economy, but a better world for generations to come — Microsoft Vice Chair and President Brad Smith dropped the line that dropped the jaw of everyone at the NJAI Summit on Thursday in Princeton: You don’t have to be the place that first invented the technology in order to become the place that makes the best use of it.

The Dutch, not the Germans, benefited most from Johannes Gutenberg’s invention, he said.

And New Jersey, not California, can be the center of the AI universe.

In an extraordinary keynote address that showed the human mind can still write a speech better than ChatGPT, Smith said the state’s concentration of great minds, great universities and a history of innovation that is unmatched are all reasons why New Jersey is uniquely positioned to dominate the future of AI.

“When you think about what the Netherlands was to the printing press, I believe New Jersey can be for AI,” he said. “It’s not as if the first generation of AI models were invented in New Jersey; it doesn’t matter. New Jersey has an extraordinary tradition of innovation on which it can build that should give everyone under this tent pause for confidence.”

In a 21-minute address that was delivered without notes (stunning many in the overflow crowd of more than 600), Smith discussed the state’s history of innovation.

From Einstein to Edison, Menlo Park to Bell Labs to RCA, no place has done innovation better than New Jersey — or is doing innovation better, he said.

“When you think about the foundational technologies of the 21st century, when you look at life sciences, when you look at nuclear fusion, when you look at quantum computing or artificial intelligence, where can you see so many people at the frontier of these fields, all within close proximity of each other? The answer, of course, is central New Jersey,” he said. “That inspires confidence.”


Past performances do not guarantee future success. Neither does overconfidence. For New Jersey to move to the forefront of the race for AI, it must remain humble and hungry, Smith said.

Smith said he feels humility is one of the greatest underappreciated strengths in the world.

“If you’re humble, you’re far more likely to be curious,” he told the crowd. “And if you are curious, you will learn.”

Smith said one of the secrets to the success of Microsoft is that it has always understood its place in the world — in Seattle, far from the supposed powerbrokers, he said.

“It means we’re constantly trying to learn from everyone else,” he said. “So, too, do you have that opportunity. Not just because of the great educational institutions here in New Jersey, but because you have the ability to recognize that there are great things actually created outside the state’s boundaries.”

Smith encouraged the AI leaders in the audience to actually go to other parts of the country and around the globe to understand what others are doing and find examples that can be brought back to New Jersey.

He suggested AI visionaries go in groups.

“People build relationships with each other, they get to know each other, they develop common context and, out of that common context, there emerges a commitment and a cohesive strategy to go forward,” he said.

“I think the other thing that humility calls on all of us in this desire to create an AI hub is a recognition that it will require that one marshal all of one’s resources, because that is what it takes to be globally competitive.”


New Jersey surely has the opportunity to create the next generation of great AI technology, Smith said. But if that is the only thing that happens, the state will fall short of the great potential it has.

Creating technology centered around humanity should be the goal, he said — pointing to an example from none other than Albert Einstein.

Einstein, Smith said, spoke of the need of the country to develop weapons that would ensure that we could defend our borders and our freedom. But, when the war was over, he also used his voice to call for the need to contain this technology that the country had created, to keep it under human control — to keep humanity safe from the excesses that technology could create, Smith said.

Such restraint is needed today, he said, in part because bad actors already are putting artificial intelligence into challenging, unfortunate and, in some cases, horrifying uses, he said.

This responsibility comes with the new era.

“We need to recognize this: In the history of humanity, we are the first generation of humans to create machines that can make decisions that have always been made by people,” he said. “We need to ensure we don’t let the future down.

“Every generation that comes after us will have to do its part to ensure that this new generation of technology serves humanity. But, as the first generation, we have no choice but to get it right.

“This is where one has such an opportunity to call on not just the life scientists and the quantum computer engineers, but the philosophers, the sociologists, the historians, the economists, the political scientists — we need to bring together everyone to ensure that this technology is used well.

“That, too, is not just part of the legacy created by an Einstein and Oppenheimer, but a legacy that continues to this day here on the Princeton campus and elsewhere in New Jersey.”


AI offers a unique opportunity for mankind, Smith said.

“I think, when we look at something so fundamentally different, when we see intelligence that is genuinely artificial, it creates a new opportunity for us to rediscover and reflect upon what all of us have in common: To think about what it means to be human, and to consider all of our common values,” he said.

Smith feels AI can bring communities together.

“We live in such a disputatious age,” he said. “But, it’s not unique in American history. Why don’t we look only at the late 1930s, to see how a divided nation could become angry, and yet could become united when it sees a common foe.

“AI is not a common foe, but, like a foreign nation that was an adversary in the war, no matter where I go, I find that it does give us the ability to bring people together across political lines here in the United States, across national borders around the world.

“I think you can continue to nurture a cohesive community, not just to address the future of AI, but to help address the future of everything.

“If you can do all of these things well — if you can do half of these things well — you will do something extraordinary, not just for New Jersey, but for the country and for the world.”