The Exchange: Walter Isaacson and Megan Smith Talk Tech

Is innovation the product of inevitable progress—or unique genius?


Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute and author of 2014’s The Innovators, a history of the digital revolution, and Megan Smith, U.S. chief technology officer (CTO) and a former Google executive, discuss imagination, invention, and the need for a stronger Silicon Valley-Washington nexus.

Megan Smith: One of my favorite expressions is: “People do things. Things don’t just magically happen.” Innovation comes out of great human ingenuity and very personal passions.

Walter Isaacson: It’s not a passion for making profits. When Bill Gates wrote BASIC for the Altair and Steve Jobs created the Apple, they had no idea that the personal-computer revolution was about to start. They wanted to create something really cool.

MS: It’s really founding teams—these small, agile teams that come together.

WI: When I asked Steve Jobs near the end of his life what product was he most proud of, he said, “Making a product is hard, but what I’m most proud of is putting together Apple the company, because that was a great team and it is the team that can continue to make future products.”

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MS: I was thinking also about Bletchley Park [the site of British code-breaking efforts during World War II]—there’s the new movie out that has [mathematician] Alan Turing depicted.

WI: One of the things The Imitation Game got exactly right was that Turing was a real loner. Suddenly, at a certain point in Bletchley Park, he realizes he needs to be a team player.

MS: But the film also has a little bit of historical inaccuracy: I think Bletchley Park was more than half women. There’s an implication in the film that women were only operators other than [cryptanalyst] Joan Clarke, and that’s not true. Of course Turing worked with tons of women, and I’ve seen some of his writing where he says, “Miss M. Rock is easily in my top three. She’s better than the professors.” I once met a woman who told me she and her siblings used to live next door to Dilly Knox’s team [a group of Bletchley Park mathematicians]. Their mom constantly was saying, “Shhhh, the girls are working.” I think: “Wow, the girls are working, saving 11 million lives and shortening World War II by two years.”

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WI: Tell me about when you were at Google and celebrated both the women of ENIAC [the first general-purpose electronic computer] and Ada Lovelace.

MS: There’s this event called “Silicon Valley [Comes] to the UK,” and we were at 10 Downing Street. Somebody was giving us a tour, and there was a painting, and the guide says, “Of course you know Lady Lovelace.” We’re like, “Who?” And we had been working in technology for a long time. So we found out when her birthday was and decided to make a Google doodle for her. When we put the doodle up, I think she was in the top 10 rising on Twitter worldwide for about 20 hours. So 100 million-plus people came to know Ada.

WI: A little bit like you, I got exposed to Ada somewhat as a surprise. My daughter was writing her college applications and she did her personal essay on Ada Lovelace. I had to get her to explain to me exactly what Ada had done that was so important. Ada Lovelace, besides being a pioneer woman programmer, was also somebody who understood the connection of the humanities to technology.

MS: Right, or Grace Hopper and the beginnings of programming languages.

WI: When Hopper taught students mathematics, she made them write essays. Then she would correct their writing, and they would say, “We’re supposed to be taking a math course.” She said, “Yes, but if you can’t explain it in writing, then you don’t fully understand it.” She said that served her very well later on when she had to invent programming languages and she had to articulate things in a very precise way and show the connection between the importance of writing and the importance of algorithms. That made her so successful.

MS: She’s an elite-level American like Thomas Edison, and people don’t know her. Right now, we have so much unconscious bias that we have to change, because we need our Ada Lovelaces, our Grace Hoppers, and our Katherine Johnsons, who’s an amazing African‑American woman who calculated so many trajectories at NASA.

WI: We have to make sure women are written permanently in the history of computing. When I mentioned at Harvard, in one of my talks a couple of years ago, that there was no picture of Grace Hopper, of course they got all upset, and they redid the entire display.

MS: I’ve noticed in the photograph with Grace, one of the older photographs, there’s an African‑American man in many of the photos. I’d love for us to figure out who he was and what his role was.

WI: That’s the other thing I worry about: People of color have been left out of the revolution somewhat.

MS: They’ve been there. In the early IBM team, that was a racially diverse team, a gender-diverse team. These stories are there.

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WI: One of the next big things that’ll affect what you’re doing now as CTO is the rise of cybercurrency.

MS: Very much so. There’s a great little company called PayNearMe, which is allowing people to go into different places [like 7-Elevens] near their homes and use cash and a bar code to pay utility bills. It’s not only things like Bitcoin, but also ways to make life easier for people who might not have a credit card.

WI: One theme you’ve discussed is making the whole digital revolution more inclusive, making sure that people who are unbanked, people of color, women, people who don’t have the full advantages of having grown up in a wired household are connected.

MS: Many people say, “The future is here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” We [at the CTO’s office] are interconnecting talent and people. If they can bring their passion to make a difference, I think we’ll see a lot of great solutions.

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WI: In early December I was looking at edX, which is the online [education] platform developed by Harvard, MIT, and other places. One of the things that President Drew Faust of Harvard was saying to us was that the explosion has come in rural India, and in China, and all around the world, for people who have never had the opportunity to have great college courses. Secondly, she said it’s being used now to create AP [Advanced Placement] courses because so many high schools in America that aren’t in prosperous neighborhoods have very few AP courses. Maybe, finally, the technology can become very inclusive and bring more people into the digital economy.

MS: Some school superintendents came for meetings [in Washington, D.C.], and one of them from rural Alabama told me that at their school, any student who had a B average or above in high school was allowed to skip first period and take a language—Chinese and Arabic and so many different languages—because of this great access courseware.

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WI: What’s it like to be working in the government now, having worked at Google?

MS: I love it. My colleagues are incredibly entrepreneurial. We coined an expression called “TQ” [technical quotient]. We’re bringing the TQ into government. In the end, our government will be whoever shows up and whoever makes this happen.

Isaacson: Patrice Gilbert/Aspen Institute; Smith: JD Lasica/Creative Commons