Tools and Weapons with Brad Smith

First Vice President Nadia Calviño: Architecting Spain’s AI future

Episode Summary

Nadia Calviño is a world leader who has earned a reputation for getting things done. As Spain’s First Vice President and Minister of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation, she created the first national agency for regulating AI. In this episode, she explains how she rearchitected Spain’s economy to embrace AI in every sector while protecting citizens’ digital privacy and safety. They discuss how she is ensuring that Spain’s digital transformation uplifts everyone, the importance of digital skilling for people of all ages and genders, and Spain’s groundbreaking charter on digital rights, which is becoming a blueprint not only across Europe and the Spanish-speaking world, but globally.

Episode Notes

Nadia Calviño is a world leader who has earned a reputation for getting things done. As Spain’s First Vice President and Minister of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation, she created the first national agency for regulating AI. In this episode, she explains how she rearchitected Spain’s economy to embrace AI in every sector while protecting citizens’ digital privacy and safety. They discuss how she is ensuring that Spain’s digital transformation uplifts everyone, the importance of digital skilling for people of all ages and genders, and Spain’s groundbreaking charter on digital rights, which is becoming a blueprint not only across Europe and the Spanish-speaking world, but globally.

Click here for the episode transcript.

Episode Transcription

Brad Smith: I'm Brad Smith, and this is Tools and Weapons. On this podcast, I'm sharing conversations with leaders who are at the intersection of the promise and the peril of the digital age. We'll explore technology's role in the world as we look for new solutions for society's biggest challenges.

Nadia Calviño: In recent weeks, people are waking up to the importance of AI, and everybody seems to be talking about the challenges or the dangers, the risks, but I think they're enormous benefits coming from business technologies. We're already enjoying some of them.

Brad Smith: That's Nadia Calviño, first vice president and minister of economic affairs and digital transformation of Spain. She has a fascinating public service career and a reputation for taking on big challenges. But what's most impressive is her ability to get so many things done, not only in Spain and the European Union, but across the Spanish speaking world.

In this episode, we discuss the importance of protecting in the digital world the constitutional rights people have in the physical world, such as privacy and safety. We talk about how Spain is bringing together companies in the tech sector with government agencies to create a new sandbox to design, test, and implement effective AI policy. She talks about how Spain is bringing together companies in the tech sector with government agencies, including a new agency, the first of its type in the world, that will regulate AI. My conversation with Nadia Calviño coming up next on Tools and Weapons.

Vice President Nadia Calviño, it's such a pleasure and privilege to be here with you today. I remember when you and I first met, it was years ago, to be honest, I came out of the meeting and turned with the person who was with me from Microsoft, and I basically said, "Wow, this is somebody who gets things done." And as we'll dig into this, you have been getting so many things done in so many areas, including the digital front in Spain. I think you've made Spain a real leader, not just in Europe, but with fascinating examples globally. But I want to start with a question. You said recently, "I'm not a pessimist. I'm not an optimist, I'm just determined." Where does that come from?

Nadia Calviño: Well, thanks very much for having me, Brad. It's such a pleasure. And indeed, I mean character-wise, I am a person that is very focused on delivery, on getting things done. And not only having great ideas, but trying to change the world around us. And since I was quite young, I was very sensitive to a number of issues. For example, gender equality. And so what I've tried to do is integrate these principles and these basic issues and values into my everyday work, in my professional, but also in my private life.

Brad Smith: And you've had a fascinating career. I mean in public service in Spain, and then in Brussels in different parts of the European Commission, and then back in Spain with positions of ever increasing prominence and responsibility. In some ways, I think you're one of the few people who has led on the European level and the national level. What have you taken away from that kind of experience?

Nadia Calviño: Well, it's extremely different because when you are working at the supranational level, it's much more technical. You're not as exposed to the political battles and the media attention. It's much more demanding to be on national politics. I think it's the same in the US. You're very exposed to questioning and to accountability vis-a-vis society. And so I think that it's complementary. It was very good to have the European experience that I think has made me much stronger on the technical side. And now the national experience has showed and forced me to develop different skills.

Brad Smith: One of the things that I think is so interesting about that is something I happen to see often as well. There are times when you need to speak one language. It is the language of government detailed policy regulation. And then there is the language that one uses to talk to everyday people, to the public. And one of the things I really have always liked about just the way you've championed the rights of people, whether it's about gender equality, or the Spanish Charter on Digital Rights is you have woven these two things together. Share a little bit, if you could, perhaps first on your focus on gender equality, and how you've tried to advance that, especially most recently in Spain, in your current role.

Nadia Calviño: Well, we've been making huge progress in terms of gender equality. And Spain is a champion in that regard. Since democracy returned to our country 40 years ago, women have increased their participation in public life, in business leadership, in society in general. And that I think has been one of the drivers, one of the levers of progress in our country.

But despite this progress, there's still so much to be done. And if we don't do it now, then when? So that's why we have made gender equality one of our top priorities in our investment and reform program. And especially I think this is particularly relevant when we talk about digital transformation. The digitalization process that has accelerated exponentially since the pandemic hit us, and which can lead to a deepening of inequalities and biases if we don't take the right decisions now.

Brad Smith: I remember talking with you shortly after the pandemic arrived around the world. We were at that point connecting by video. You acted with extraordinary determination to address the needs of Spanish society. You put digital technology to use in an important way. But you also really jumpstarted in some ways your initiative around digital rights for people and the Spanish Charter. Tell us a little bit about how you think about that.

Nadia Calviño: When I think back, I am really impressed that by the summer of 2020, we realized that things were really moving ahead so fast. And thanks to the very strong digital infrastructures we have in Spain, everybody was turning digital from one day to the next. We were teleworking, we were seeing our families on the screens. Our whole life was turning around digital technologies.

And so at that time, in July 2020 already, we published our roadmap, the digital agenda. And shortly thereafter, we adopted the Charter of Digital Rights. We brought together a number of experts from many areas, technologies, humanistic, philosophy, law to bring them together and try to identify how we could ensure that our values and rights, which are protected on the real world, would also be protected on the digital world.

And we published eight detailed plans for digitalization of administration, small and medium enterprises, digital skills, artificial intelligence, which we are following now. And I am impressed that at the time we realized at very early stage that this is the time to get our rights and values inserted into the new digital technologies. Or else in some years time, we may look back and realize that it was those wrong decisions have actually made our societies weaker and made citizens more vulnerable.

Brad Smith: And when you put together the Charter on Digital Rights, there's a couple of things that I think are particularly interesting. First in terms of its point of origin. As you mentioned, Spain's not unique in the world, but it is a little unusual because you had to bring democracy back. Especially given your experience at the European level, is it a different conversation when you are effectively conversing with almost 50 million people, many of whom remember what it was like not to have those rights the way they do today?

Nadia Calviño: Well, that's an extremely interesting question. I do think that indeed our experience and our history is very relevant to this effect in different ways. In the case of Spain, I think that we are extremely vigilant to ensure that our rights and values, our constitutional rights and values, are protected in these new technologies. Indeed, for the reasons that we didn't have a constitution, we didn't have our rights protected for 40 years under the dictatorship.

But it is interesting because Germany has a very different experience. Because they had this vigilant state that would get into the intimacy of the houses. They are extremely strong on protecting privacy and personal individual rights to an extent which is maybe higher than any other European country. And this is very relevant at this point in time because I think that we're getting to the crux of the matter of where to draw the boundaries between our rights and the need to also ensure efficient and technological progress.

Brad Smith: One of the other interesting aspects of the Spanish Charter was that, when you advanced it, you said this isn't something for the government alone to sign up and commit to. You asked others. You asked tech companies. We at Microsoft I think were among the first to stand up and sign it. You basically made it a cause for everyone in society. How do you take stock of that at this stage? We're in 2023. Do you see it spreading a commitment to digital rights?

Nadia Calviño: Yes, undoubtedly so. I think that couple of years ago or three years ago, I was discussing these issues, we were a bit alone in thinking this was very relevant. Together with some companies, such as Microsoft, you yourself, have always been quite sensitive to the implications on society of new technologies. So at that time, nobody was discussing this.

Since then, we have been working with the European Union. And the commission has already issued also a charter. We've been working with our brothers on the other side of the Atlantic, Latin American countries. And in March we reached an agreement to have a Latin American Charter of Digital Rights profiting from the fact that we speak Spanish, and 600 million persons around the world speaks Spanish. So that is also an asset when it comes to protecting our rights and values.

And I think the time is ripe to start thinking about bringing this up to a level which is global. To work with institutions such as the UN and others to see how to continue to make progress. Actually, President Sánchez was in Washington a couple of weeks ago with President Biden. And I know for a fact that they discussed this issue. And President Sánchez put it on the table on President Biden as a key issue that maybe we needed to bring forward together at the global level.

Brad Smith: You're thinking here, I think, also connects with another really important aspect of what's happening in the world today, and that's the building of bridges between nations, especially as we're thinking about new technologies. And because you've been at the forefront, I think to some degree, given your own experience yourself personally in Brussels, you have insights on how to connect with the rest of Europe. But you do have these other bridges. You forge a unique bridge with the hundreds of millions of Spanish speakers in the world, as well as this very strong bridge with the United States. Do you see a prospect to bring more countries together around these types of things?

Nadia Calviño: Well, certainly, I think the building bridges is much better than building walls, as other are trying to do or actually widening the gaps. We're in the midst of a process of deep change. The tectonic plates on which the international order was built after the end of Second World War are moving, are shifting. And we need to try to build a method and to build a multinational environment which is bringing peace and stability and friendship instead of creating more cleavages and conflict throughout the world.

So in that sense, I think that what's happening with digital technologies and the technological race, this competition, is a good example. It's a symptom of this situation, this new geopolitical order that is in the making as we speak. And that is why I think the moment is ripe to try to have some multinational, some international debate on these issues because it is now that we need to build an international order, which is actually ensuring that technology is for the good of society to improve the wellness of human beings and not endangering our democratic systems.

Brad Smith: Here it is, it's 2023, and I think one of the topics of the year is governing AI and the international governance of AI. You've been, I think, getting ready for this in a way that frankly other governments typically have not. So many times around the world we see a government pass a law, and then they create an agency or give the authority to an existing agency to enforce it. Everyone knows that an AI Act is coming at the European Union level, but you acted first. You put the agency in place, an agency for the supervision of AI, ahead of the law. Can you say a little bit about what led you to make that decision?

Nadia Calviño: Yeah, I think the time is playing against us. And as policymakers and as public servants thinking about the wellbeing of societies, we are in a relatively weak position. Brad, let's be honest, I will never have the ability to regulate and supervise algorithms with the same technical expertise that your company or any other of the big tech will. So we need to work together if we want these technologies to be for good.

So what we have done is acted very fast to create an agency, which is being built as we speak, and give it some capabilities. But since we still don't quite know how far these supervisory powers should go and how are we going to articulate the process, we have launched a sandbox, together with the European Commission, so that we can get companies to participate and through public private cooperation, we can actually try to get it right. So that regulation requirements, transparency requirements, all these rules are designed together.

And I think that's why also Spain has been chosen as the seat of the European Algorithmic Transparency Center, which is the embryo of what could be the European agency in this area. So we are working very closely with the private sector, but also with the European Commission, so that we design a regulatory framework which is fit for purpose. Which does not hinder technological progress, but ensures that the rules are proportionate, especially for SMEs and startups, and that the rules are actually allowing us to reach our goals. Which is at the end of the day, to ensure that citizens can interact with artificial intelligence with full trust and confidence. I think that's actually a win-win because the private sector should also be interested in building trust and confidence in their clients.

Brad Smith: One of the key words I think you just used is capabilities. You're focused on building up capabilities. And one of the things as I've been following it is that you're focused in this new agency, of course, on building up technical capabilities. But it's not technical capabilities alone. You're really looking broadly at the kinds of disciplines, the backgrounds, the skill sets, the thinking of the different people that need to work together. Can you tell us a little bit about your perspective on that aspect?

Nadia Calviño: Yes. I think that ethical algorithms or green efficient algorithms do not happen by accident. I think that they need to be by design. And so we need to have a multidisciplinary kind of approach. It's not only the programmers or the engineers that need to look into this issue. We also need to have philosophers, maybe historians. I just mentioned how relevant history is. Each country has its own rules, it's own values, ethical values, and principles, and nuances on how to achieve those results. So I think we absolutely need a multidisciplinary approach. And as I was saying, I also think we need an international approach. This is not an issue that we can just tackle at national level. Not even the US can tackle it alone, I think. And the more we bring or we find a common ground at the international level, the more effective we will be in this area.

Brad Smith: In the United States, I find that those Americans who are following the debate on the AI Act at the European level sort of see this natural tension. It's sort of the ever present challenge, if you will. And sometimes there's a bit of a divergence across the Atlantic about call it regulation versus innovation, regulation versus the market. You've been so determined, I will say, in Spain to advance digital investment, but also do it in a way that puts it in a framework within human values, Spanish values. How do you think about these issues when people talk about AI regulation and the like? How do we get the balance right?

Nadia Calviño: No, that's a very good point because actually, in recent weeks, we've heard some governments or companies have said, "Let's halt AI altogether. Let's have a moratorium." Or, "Let's ban some instruments." Some apps like ChatGPT. Others say we should ban TikTok. And actually some governments and some countries have. Our approach is very different. We think that we should not stop innovation. It is really not a very productive approach. It is better to set the standards as soon as possible so that companies can adapt. And then you can also differentiate those that meet the requirements and get maybe label that they're compliant, like we were discussing with the digital rights, and others that are not. And then you can actually make the right decisions in a proportionate manner instead of banning some progress or some technological development altogether.

And I think with the AI regulation in Europe, we're getting it right because we are identifying the risky kinds of AI developments that need to be regulated, but without stopping innovation and startups and the beginning of this innovation process. And proportionality is at the heart of the whole framework. But as I said a moment ago, I think it's really important that we work on sandboxes so that it's not only the general rules, but the very detailed requirements, transparency requirements, accountability requirements, and supervisory principles that we get them right so that we do not stall progress.

Brad Smith: Another area where there is this tension is I'll say the benefits that new technology including AI can bring to help us address the global climate sustainability needs. And at the same time, AI especially demands electricity. It runs on more power. I will always remember one of the meetings and conversations we had when I was in Madrid, when you basically said, "It's all well and good for Microsoft to want to increase its data center presence in Spain. We welcome that. But you better bring some more energy here, and not just tap into our existing supply." And that's a conversation that I know you've had with companies across the tech sector. What is your philosophy as you think about helping AI move forward but addressing these sustainability needs?

Nadia Calviño: Indeed, I really appreciate that we start talking about the benefits. Because in recent weeks, people are waking up to the importance of AI, and everybody seems to be talking about the challenges, or the dangers, the risks, but I think there are enormous benefits coming from these new technologies. We're already enjoying some of them. Tomorrow I'll be going to Barcelona. I'll visit a company that we are funding for an R&D project, which has to do with precision health, and how to be targeted with health treatments. Likewise with education, even our funding a project that has to do with olive trees and how to enhance the productivity of olive tree production.

So I think the variety of areas where AI can help us is enormous and we have to really support this process. But one of the challenges indeed is coming from the huge energy demands from these technologies. And since we have the digital transition and the green transition in parallel, fighting climate change, we have to ensure that algorithms are also helping have energy efficiency. So that, as I said a moment ago, we have systems which are green by design.

So from the outset, we try to have the most effective and efficient use of the scarce resources. Now in the case of Spain, we are also investing heavily in the deployment of renewables that we think is the right... We have a very diversified energy generation portfolio, but being a very sunny country, we need to, in our view, even increase even more the penetration of renewables so that we can have the cleanest and the cheapest energy allowing us to pursue these technological developments in our country.

Brad Smith: As we look to those issues, then look to the future, I want to take us back for a moment to a little bit of where we began earlier, your focus on people. And one of the priorities you've also pursued when it comes to the digital agenda is skilling for people. Can you say a little bit about what you have been leading in Spain around digital skilling?

Nadia Calviño: Yes. This is a top priority for us. Because if we want our societies to profit from the opportunities coming from new technologies, they need to have the appropriate skills, which are very different depending on age and other circumstances. So we're investing in education at school. We are also investing in university, vocational training, in work re-skilling and upskilling, and also for the elderly. Because digital inclusion is social inclusion, it's more and more social inclusion. And it will be even more so when we have access to health, education, and other public services online.

So we are using very different instruments. From TV programs, so that the elderly people can be sensitive and be interested in these new technologies. From technological endowment in the schools and vocational training centers. Also incentives for companies to train and re-skill their people. And of course, public private partnership. This is not something that can be done from the public sector alone.

We have launched a program called Generation D, bringing together more than I think almost 200 companies have joined, who are putting together their capabilities and their programs so that we can try to leverage and reach the vast majority of the population. I have to say, sometimes prejudice is blinding us to the fact that, in our country, over 60% of the elderly people are already using these new technologies. And 50% of total people older than 65 use it on a daily basis or a regular basis. So I think that most of our society since the pandemic hit us, has woken up to the fact that we need to connect to these new technologies, or else we will be excluded from a big part of our society.

Brad Smith: I do think the opportunities to serve senior citizens and the elderly is so important. I mean, we're hopeful that AI will make all of that easier. I also want to look at the other end of the age spectrum. As you noted, when you're in the world of politics, you engage with people much more directly. You have to just reach everyday people on everyday terms. And there is no setting that I think brings government leaders into that like a political campaign. You're going to have an upcoming election. As you go out and meet people, especially given just your longstanding commitment to gender equality, if in the coming weeks you meet a mother who has a daughter, who I suspect will look at you not just as a leader of the country, but as a role model for her family, if someone asks you, what should I be doing for my daughter so that she's ready to take advantage of this new generation of technology we see coming, what advice would you offer?

Nadia Calviño: Yes. Well, if the daughter is younger, I would certainly be very sensitive to the fact that they are very vulnerable. And we are seeing these days that teenagers, for example, due to social media and these new technologies, are suffering enormously. And since the pandemic, we're seeing an increasing mental health problems. So if she's a young girl, the mother could be worried about that angle of technologies.

But the second angle would certainly be about the future and how can I help her? And I would very strongly recommend that she takes courses and she gets into an engineering career or something, which has to do with the new technologies. Because it is essential that women have access to the jobs of the future, the high productivity, high quality, high wage jobs of the future. And we need to avoid that women are disconnected from this new world because also that would make biases and gaps more permanent. Because if women are not participating, if they are not in the decision making process, if they are not designing these new technologies, then our point of view and our needs will not be taken into account.

So it is essential that we have programs which are targeting very specifically the integration, the insertion of women and the participation of women in the new digital world. And I think role models are extremely interesting in this regard. Brad, and I don't know, Microsoft could maybe help. Because many people have the idea that a programmer is a boy, is a guy who's eating hamburgers, watching a screen, and doing very odd things with a machine. I think we have to also show that technology and being into these kind of professions is also helping create a better world, and it is serving people, and I think that would be a very strong motivation for girls to join this career path.

Brad Smith: Well, I also think it really speaks to how the world has changed in a better way. The truth is, when Microsoft was founded 48 years ago, it really was mostly young men in their 20s eating hamburgers. In fact, when Microsoft first moved its headquarters to the Seattle area, it literally moved it next door to a place called Burgermaster, which as you might imagine, was all about burgers.

And yet it is so different today. It's so much more diverse in every respect, including nationality, which I think is good. I always think when I get in the elevator in a building at Microsoft, I never know what language I'm going to hear spoken. But especially as well when it comes to gender. One of the things that you were being asked about in an interview recently was I guess a comment that you had made. You said, "I hadn't really planned to make it," but you said, "I'm not going to be the only woman in these photographs anymore. That time should be over." And I think that's not just true for the world of government, but the world of technology. And I applaud you for just sort of standing up and saying, it's time to get more people in these photos.

Nadia Calviño: Well, and the funniest thing is that in most locations, there is a very suitable woman that can join the photo. In most cases, they just hadn't thought that there was a vice president or a senior person or the one that had organized the event that could join the picture so as to give visibility to women. It's extremely important the young girls see that women can play a leading role and that we are in the picture. Otherwise they will think, well, this is not for me. I cannot join this kind of career or this digital world. But when I did it, and indeed you're right, I had not planned it at all. It came very spontaneously. Then it became viral. And now I have to of course be very vigilant, but always to do it for the benefit of many women. They come to me and say, "Thank you very much. I am participating much more in events since you made that remark and since you made the requirement." And I think that's a good step forward. Yeah.

Brad Smith: Well, I find, like you, we live in a world where one needs typically to think carefully before speaking, and yet sometimes your best thoughts just come out spontaneously. And I think that's a good thing. And as we bring this to a close, I do want to thank you, Nadia. I mean, I do think you're such a role model for so many people, and such a leader for Spain and for Europe for these digital issues. But I want to thank you for your determination. We are going to need more of it, I think, including from you. And I think we'll all have the opportunity to benefit, not just the people of Spain, but our around the world from what you are doing because it's spreading and it's a very positive thing to see.

Nadia Calviño: Thank you very much, Brad, for this initiative. And it was a pleasure to participate and give you a different perspective maybe to those listening to the podcast.

Brad Smith: And as you say, it doesn't matter when you get up in the morning. It's actually a little easier to be an optimist than a pessimist, but it matters most if you're determined. So thank you very much.

Nadia Calviño: Bye. All the best.

Brad Smith: Bye. You've been listening to Tools and Weapons with me, Brad Smith. If you enjoyed today's show, please follow us wherever you like to listen. Our executive producers are Carol Ann Browne and Aaron Thiese. This episode of Tools and Weapons was produced by Corina Hernandez and Jordan Rothlein. This podcast is edited and mixed by Jennie Cataldo, with production support by Sam Kirkpatrick at RUN Studios. Original music by Angular Wave Research. Tools and Weapons is a production of Microsoft made in partnership with Listen.