Google's Eric Schmidt: We need critical thinking now more than ever
The Alphabet boss says the world is entering an age of abundance, driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning
Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet Inc (Google’s parent company), is optimistic about the future. “We’re entering what I call the age of abundance,” he says. “And during the age of abundance, we’re going to see a new age … the age of intelligence.
“By 2020, most human beings will have access to the internet. When you have everyone harnessed with this information, the world gets more inter-connected. It gets stronger. There’s more knowledge sharing. There’s more freedom and there’s more openness.”
Schmidt was talking at last week’s Viva Technology conference in Paris where he was a headline speaker. Also present was the newly appointed president of France, Emmanuel Macron, who announced: “France is becoming the nation for startups and must succeed in this challenge.”
Schmidt spoke just a few days before he, along with other technology CEOs, met with President Trump, to discuss modernising the US government’s information technology systems.
“I’ve come to believe that science and critical thinking really do matter. Even more so now in the political world that we have in the United States and in other areas of the world,” Schmidt added.
He acknowledged that the fast pace of innovation had made many wary of change. But he emphasised that machine learning and artificial intelligence hold opportunities for a broad range of sectors, including farming, energy, fashion, and healthcare, even if they operated very differently to today.
“The largest taxi company has no taxis, that’s Uber. The largest accommodation company has no real estate, that’s Airbnb. The largest phone company has no infrastructure, that’s Skype. The most valuable retailer has no inventory, that’s Alibaba. The largest movie theatre has no movie theatres, that’s Netflix.
“These of course are huge disruptions ... and incumbents [always] resist change. When Henry Ford released his Model T car, it was dismissed as a fad because horses are here to stay. In 1928, a doctor warned that rail travel at high speeds would cause passengers to die of asphyxiation. And – my favourite – in 2007, [Microsoft CEO] Steve Ballmer said there was no chance the iPhone was going to achieve any significant market share.”
A report released during the conference by McKinsey Global Institute, highlighted the global growth of the artificial intelligence (AI) sector. There was three times as much investment into AI in 2016 (between $26bn and $39bn) as there was in 2013. This was predominantly spent on research and development, particularly in the machine learning space. Companies in the US accounted for 66% of that investment, with China second at 17%.
Progress has largely been driven by large corporates, such as Google and Amazon, and the broader technology sector. In the report’s survey of 3,000 AI-aware executives across 10 countries, only 20% said they use AI technology in a core part of their business. Almost half (41%) of those asked, said they were uncertain of the business case for AI.
“The conclusion is that all businesses will change,” Schmidt said of McKinsey’s report. “This age of intelligence will allow you to build a company that’s far more efficient. Prices [will be] lower, volumes [will be] better, the quality [will be] better. Computers, instead of just doing analysis will really be able to help you.”
He gives the example of two self driving cars, owned by separate people, that have each only been taught to turn one way. What if they could exchange information?
“That’s something that computers can do, but humans cannot. This ability [of computers] to learn from peers, means that as things are learned, everyone learns them. The combination of connectivity and the ability for this insight around the globe, means a rate of innovation that we’ve never seen throughout society.”
Rather than this leading to a loss of jobs, Schmidt believes the future will see more jobs available that are highly paid.
“You’ll take people plus computers and the computers will make the people smarter. If you make people smarter, their wages go up, not down. And the number of jobs will go up, not down. What will happen to human interaction? I think there’ll be more.
“It used to take months for discovery and new developments to be understood. Now they can occur simultaneously all around the world.”
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