Catching up with Steve Ballmer on AI, sports tech, the economy, fake news and life after Microsoft

Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO, left, interviewed by GeekWire’s Todd Bishop at a Rotary Club of Seattle luncheon this week. (GeekWire Photo / Amy Bishop)

It has been nearly four years since Steve Ballmer left his job as Microsoft CEO, and he’s noticeably more relaxed these days.

“One of the nice things about having four or five unrelated things you work on (is that) people always assume you’re working in one of the other areas even when you’re out screwing around, playing golf,” he joked on stage Wednesday at the Rotary Club of Seattle.

RELATED: If Steve Ballmer could show President Trump and Congressional leaders one slide, this would be it

But he’s no less energetic or enthusiastic about the projects he’s pursuing, as anyone who has watched him on the sidelines of an L.A. Clippers game knows. In addition to owning the NBA team, he leads the USAFacts data initiative, and works with his wife Connie on their Ballmer Group philanthropy, aiming to give kids born into poverty a better shot at moving up the economic ladder.

This week, I got a chance to catch up with Ballmer, first interviewing him on stage at the Rotary luncheon, where he addressed topics including USAFacts, his thoughts on the state of the country, his experience as an NBA owner, and his philanthropic work.

Afterward, I sat down with Ballmer for a one-on-one conversation that spanned technology, artificial intelligence, the state of the economy, and the role of social media in policing “fake news.” We talked a bit about his Microsoft legacy, and his current thoughts about the company. I also asked about Amazon, and whether he’d like to see his hometown of Detroit win the e-commerce giant’s HQ2.

“Oh, I’d love to see it in Detroit,” he said. “It’d be phenomenal for Detroit.”

Amazon’s public search is “really kind of smart,” Ballmer said. However, he expressed some skepticism about whether it will really be a fully equal headquarters, until Amazon discloses whether a top executive will move there — someone like CEO Jeff Bezos, Amazon Consumer CEO Jeff Wilke, senior vice president Jeff Blackburn or Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy.

“If you don’t move a senior exec, it’s hard to call it a headquarters,” he said.

Looking at Amazon’s evolution, Ballmer acknowledged that he didn’t expect the company to become the phenomenon that it has. He recalled thinking that Amazon was overhyped at a $10 billion valuation.

“So clearly you could say I didn’t get it,” he said. “Or, you could say, ‘Hey, look, Bezos is even better than I might have thought he was.’ It’s all of these things. They’re not fixed. Their concept of 10 or 15 years ago is not exactly the same concept as today. So, the thing that you would need to assess is just how good the management team is — and, you know, I think they’re really good.”

After working actively as a tech investor in the early days of his post-Microsoft life — buying up a large stake in Twitter, for example — Ballmer has opted to focus on other pursuits instead. He said he found that tech investing wasn’t fun for him, and he ultimately didn’t have time the time or interest to engage with companies or put in the hours required to become a really good investor.

State of sports tech

But he still pays close attention to tech. As an extension of his Clippers ownership, he’s participating in an ambitious sports technology project as an investor in startup Second Spectrum, which is developing artificial intelligence to augment NBA broadcasts with data and graphics.

As we were talking, Ballmer showed a video of the working technology in its current state, including the ability to see stats and graphics on the screen above and below players as they moved down the court. The experience has several different modes. A “blacktop” view creates fun animations on screen when someone dunks, for example. A coach’s mode will show details of plays, such as a pick-and-roll on the floor.

The video that Ballmer showed me, demonstrating the experience working with live code, isn’t yet available publicly. However, this earlier video from Second Spectrum shows some of the underlying technology.

The process is all automated, not manual. It’s currently in an early preview with friends and family, with close to 1,000 users. Ballmer said the lag time is currently about 30 minutes, so it’s not yet a substitute for watching a game live. But the Second Spectrum team is working to get that lag down to 30 seconds or less before launching the technology publicly, potentially for the next NBA basketball season.

In terms of difficulty, how does this compare to other engineering challenges he has been involved with?

“It’s pretty complicated,” Ballmer said. “You have computer vision, you’ve got machine learning. … We’re going to anticipate the statistics you’re going to want to see at any point in the game based on what’s going on. … You have to be checking the stuff that you’ve learned pretty much in real time. We’re trying to paint over a live video stream. It’s got a degree of difficulty associated with it.”

Ultimately, he said, the project demonstrates the value of doing augmented reality on screen, so everyone can see, without requiring glasses. The quintessential example, he noted, is the virtual yellow line indicating the first-down during a football broadcast.

Tech, the economy and AI

Steve Ballmer in Seattle this week. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

As we spoke, we were sitting almost in the middle of the tech boom, on the northern edge of downtown Seattle, right next to the Amazon campus. So how long can it continue?

Ballmer first addressed the stock market: “I think it’s got a bubble characteristic,” he said. “I’m not a financial forecaster. I don’t want to do that. But something feels unsustainable about at least the current levels of the market.”

He clarified, “I’m not actually talking about the ability for companies to innovate. I think that continues to progress, and sometimes you get a hockey stick with a big new innovation that takes things to a new level.” He cited the past examples of the server, the internet, the smartphone and the cloud.

Ultimately, he said, “this AI thing I’m sure will turn into something radical,” although it’s not there yet.

So could AI help keep our democracy intact by combatting fake news? Ballmer doesn’t think so. It’s a relevant issue to him as the head of USAFacts and a longtime technology leader, but he has expressed skepticism about technology alone as a way to fix the problem. He reiterated that sentiment during our conversation and said his viewpoint has been vindicated by Facebook’s move to use a mix of humans and technology in this regard.

The big challenge, he said, is defining “fake news.” You can’t teach an algorithm to detect something that humans can’t agree on.

Moving on from Microsoft

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, left, with his successor Satya Nadella in September 2017. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Our conversation was primarily focused on Ballmer’s current projects, and his outlook on the future, but he’s still a major Microsoft shareholder, and his legacy at the company came up when we were discussing his decision not to focus on his tech investments anymore.

“You know, I used to think I had to be active as a shareholder,” he said. Now, his approach is, “Leave ’em alone, they’re doing a good job. And, you know, when they’re not? Fine. But they’re doing a really good job. It’s one of proudest things I have: Microsoft’s really doing well.”

Ballmer acknowledges that one of his biggest missteps at Microsoft was not getting the company into device hardware sooner, which was one of the factors that ultimately made Microsoft an also-ran in smartphones, to put it charitably. But he also was able to set in motion the company’s transition to the cloud, with the Bing search engine and Microsoft Azure serving as the underpinnings for that shift.

Does it frost him that he doesn’t get more credit for that? No, he said.

“All the satisfaction I get is from what I get to see going on,” he said. “What can an outgoing CEO leave somebody with? You can leave ’em with a good financial situation. I feel good about that. You can leave ’em with some good businesses and some good emerging businesses. I feel good about that.”

And after taking the helm in the midst of the company’s antitrust challenges, Ballmer also left Microsoft with “a relatively clean legal situation, so they don’t have to clean up messes.”

Ultimately, he said, “you can leave ’em with incredible talent that can take ’em far past where you ever did.” In that regard, he said his successor, Satya Nadella, is “doing a great job.”

After we wrapped up our conversation, Ballmer left the hotel conference room en route to the Bay Area, where that night the Clippers trounced the Golden State Warriors, 125-106, as their owner cheered them on.