Interning at Microsoft

Sam Wallace
During the summer of 2019, Sam Wallace (MBA '20) interned at Microsoft, through NYU Stern's MBA Sustainability and Human Rights Fellowship. Read on to learn more about his time there:
Tell me about your summer internship experience. Where did you work and what types of projects did you work on?
I worked on a research project for the human rights team at Microsoft, focused on AI in the military. Several teams at the company had identified these sales as highly sensitive from a policy point of view. My role was to conduct due diligence into the potential for Microsoft to be linked to human rights harms from future sales in this area, and to recommend areas for further focus. 
The first part involved researching the most likely applications for AI in the military - from more benign uses like logistics and HR, to more sensitive ones like intelligence and weapons guidance. I then tried to determine which human rights are most at risk as militaries begin to adopt AI technologies, and how Microsoft could be implicated if their products were linked to violations of human rights laws. Finally, I worked on recommendations for how the company could begin to build safety and ethical standards for evaluating potential deals.
I was based in New York, but the project involved interviewing many stakeholders, both inside and outside the company. I got to travel to the San Francisco and Seattle offices, and also attend stakeholder events, like a UN workshop on the effect of AI on children’s welfare.  
How did sustainable business practices play a role in your internship?
It was neat to be with a company doing this kind of forward-looking policy research on ESG issues. AI is still fairly primitive, but Microsoft is looking to the future, where it could transform a variety of industries, leading to profound and potentially unexpected consequences. In the past, technology companies have taken a “move fast and break things” attitude that has left them in many cases unprepared to deal with the social consequences of their disruptive products. By taking a more disciplined approach to due diligence, Microsoft hopes to foresee and manage ethical and policy issues before they emerge. This could help the company avoid problems down the road, like reputational damage and increased regulatory scrutiny, as well as simply making sure it’s on the right side of history as technology revolutions unfold. 
What were your top three learnings from your internship?
It was very interesting to see how a large company brings together stakeholders to work on an issue like this. I was part of a cross-functional group that included people from product, legal, policy, communications, and human rights backgrounds. Every team is working with their own set of expertise and concerns, so it was interesting to see how the team worked together to formulate recommendations for senior management.
It was also interesting to see how the company engaged outside groups like NGOs and research and advocacy organizations. In some ways, I think tech companies are still figuring out how to work with these kinds of stakeholders on emerging policy issues.
Finally, I learned a lot about AI, and how tech innovations aren’t always what they seem. Many analysts are sounding the alarm about a future of “killer robots.” However, I found that the AI revolution is likely to be more incremental, where machines gradually take over analysis and decision-making roles that were once held by humans. It’s far less dramatic, but no less worrisome from a policy point of view.
Did your summer internship experience change your thoughts about your career trajectory moving forward?

The experience gave me a much better understanding of tech policy roles within a large company. A lot of this field is so new that it’s difficult to see a clear career path; people currently in these roles come from a variety of different backgrounds. However, I frequently heard that there was a large and growing need for this type of work, so hopefully the experience will better position me to identify these kinds of opportunities.