There were many good keynotes this year at CES, but the two best were from GM and Microsoft. Brad Smith from Microsoft did a better job of looping in current events and talking about making the world better, which, to me (and I used to teach classes on this), exemplifies the best Keynotes. Bill Gates often did this as well, and I think it defines a genuinely great keynote.
But what both GM’s Mary Barra, who also had an impressive talk (I’ve never liked GM cars, and suddenly I love three that are coming to market), did was to showcase the unique power of a virtual event.
Let’s talk about what made Brad (and in many cases Mary Barra’s) talk exceptional and cover some of the enterprise components on the Cloud and Cyber Security threats.
Doing A Virtual Keynote Well
The elements of a great keynote are it is interesting, it is topical, it talks about a vision (doesn’t just pitch products), and it uses the power of the medium.
By the medium, I mean either the stage or, in this case, the digital medium. When you are on stage, you have a lot of physical space you can use for guests, future products, or demos. When you are virtual, you have the world. The worst keynotes are just some person talking at you for 30 minutes to several hours. This talking head approach is awful online because you have far more distractions. When we used to do studies like this, you generally lost the audience within 15 minutes as the audience moved to other things like Social Media or Email.
When you are virtual, you can go on location and show and tell people about the topic. Both Brad and Mary took us to unique locations, a massive data center and a showroom of prototype cars, respectively. If there are significant events, you loop them to pull people back to your talk when their interest is likely on whatever the breaking news is. With an attack at the US capital, at least in the US, a considerable portion of the CES audience is focused on that news. Brad looped that in, though given I’m a car guy, Mary Barra’s talk kept me engaged as well. Not everyone is a “car guy,” though, which is why I give Brad’s talk the edge.
Now let’s talk about what he said (by the way, Brad was well-rehearsed and performed well, but at CES, everyone so far has also done that).
Microsoft Keynote: Cloud and Cyber Security
Brad opened remembering Bill Gates keynotes, which anchored CES for 11 years. While Bill wasn’t a great speaker, his content was generally outstanding, and he seemed to engage with his audiences better than most.
Compared to Steve Jobs, one of the most charismatic tech speakers ever, Bill lacked Jobs’ charisma and presentation skills but was far better with content. Recall that Bill predicted the Cloud at CES and then helped drive Microsoft to the Cloud over the following two years.
Brad took us to one of the largest Azure Data centers and took us on a massive tour of the complex, which had 20 buildings, each of which could house two airliners. I noticed that he never showed the security around the complex, which is a best practice. This center contains as much data as 50K libraries of congress across 500K servers.
Backing up this complex is a massive UPS with 19K battery cells and 140 generators, each of which could power 3K homes. This Axure power system is in the process of being converted to hydrogen or fuel cell power (currently, it is clean diesel and should complete that conversion by 2030).
Cyber Security And Hostile AIs
He then shifted to current events and the recent SolarWinds breach in terms of government policy. He recalled that Cyber risk when he first started with Microsoft derived some kid living at home who had rudimentary skills and no concept of repercussions. This problem has evolved into hostile nation states with resources that exceed what many companies can bring to the table.
He then took us back to how the US initially ramped up to address the Cyber Security problem with a fascinating story. Ronald Reagan watched movies with his wife Nancy at Camp David, and the movie that night was War Games. Nancy asked her husband if what was being shown was possible, and the President didn’t know. When the President went into Arms talks with Russia, he asked one of his generals that same question, and the General answered, “not only is that possible, it is far worse than you could even imagine.”
I should point out he broke up his talk with videos from that time showing both the movie and what happened at the White House; it was amazing to see that story become real on my monitor. Exciting stories like this will stick with an audience and make a talk like this memorable.
Doubling down on the problem, Brad then talked about how governments as a practice spy on each other but that the SolarWinds breach was more like an attack doing massive damage. There is no doubt in my mind that a future attack like this could result in a war, and with different leadership, would have resulted in significant retaliation. He also expressed anger over the attacks on our health infrastructure during a pandemic, suggesting the response was less than what he (or I) would like to see.
He accurately pointed out that 9/11 resulted from siloed intelligence systems that knew of the pending attack but didn’t share the information in time for the attack to be prevented. This problem continues, which is why more attacks like the SolarWinds attack remain likely.
He suggested the old “need to know” rules need to be changed to “need to share” to make sure agencies are made aware of threats before they happen. He argued that the 9/11 commission was helpful but would have been massively more helpful if it was convened on the threat rather than the act because then the act could have been prevented. While privacy needs to be protected, when threats emerge, they have to be shared so they can be mitigated rather than the current practice of instead trying to find people to blame.
He looped back in the movie War Games (which I need to watch again) and how the central message from that movie was that humans still need to remain in control in the face of AI. People want to know there are safeguards around technology to become a threat to their lives. Using Facial recognition, one of the early uses of AI, as an example, he pointed out how critical it is to provide secure access but how it could be used to violate human rights. The capital attack came to my mind and how helpful this technology will be to identifying the perpetrators.
He pointed out that as AI moves to weapons of war, people have to remain in the loop or the alternative ending of War Games, where the world dies in a thermonuclear war, goes from fiction to probability.
Wrapping Up: The Future Is Bright
After scaring the crap out of me (read the book Robopocalypse), he moved to a positive ending and message that the future is bright. Presenting excerpts from John F. Kennedy’s moon speech, one of the most powerful talks in history, he spoke about how that effort pulled the country together and focused it on a bright future. In 1968 when the country was in crisis with two major assassinations (Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy) and massive demonstrations, the Moon Landing helped pull the nation together and how the resulting new skill sets benefited the world.
Vision is what defines a great keynote, and this is where Brad ended. Technology, he argued, has no conscience. That has to be provided by people because otherwise, technology can do a great deal of harm. For us to have a bright future, leadership must ensure that the technology we create serves the world and doesn’t, instead, destroy it.
Powerfully said, putting this keynote on the list of some of the best well-rounded, and insightful keynotes I’ve ever seen. (By the way, Microsoft also had excellent product placement, those moderating CES all seemed to be using Surface Notebooks, nicely done!).