The technology industry is remarkable for its rate of change. Companies form, grow to mammoth size, and are displaced by upstarts within a few years. In the process, these companies create products and services that transform the day-to-day experience of their customers.
Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, recently visited Yale SOM and spoke with us about the disjunctive leaps made by innovators in the tech sector. “The characteristic of great innovators and great companies is that they see a space that others do not,” says Schmidt. “They don’t just listen to what people tell them, they actually invent something new, something you didn’t know you needed, but the moment you see it you say, I must have it.”
An industry that moves in such rapid bounds makes prognostication difficult. People trying to look even a few years into the future can see radically different possibilities around a trend. For example, it seems likely that over the next few decades, more and more of the world's population will be constantly connected to the internet by portable and ever-more-powerful computers.
For some, this fully networked future is a threat. The device in your pocket, privy to your location, internet searches, and previous purchases, could serve as a mole for corporations eager to find every opportunity to make a sale, or even as an instrument of observation and control by an authoritarian government.
In a harbinger of future dilemmas, the New York Times reports that months before Google Glass's release, businesses and governments are considering ways to prevent Glass wearers from violating the privacy of those around them.
Others imagine something more like the pleasant-voiced computer from Star Trek—a thinking assistant with access to all of the world's knowledge. (In fact, according to multiple news accounts, staff members at Google have explicitly taken the Star Trek computer as their goal.) The techno-optimists speculate that putting more information in the hands of individuals will work against tyranny.
Schmidt’s new book, The New Digital Age, co-authored with Jared Cohen, tries to come to grips with what the global growth of the internet, which they call “the world’s largest ungoverned space,” will mean for cultural institutions and governments. “We speculate that people will have huge new empowerment applications, which will make their lives much easier," Schmidt says. “We also speculate that governments in particular will find the empowerment of individuals counter to some of their policies."
He also acknowledges that in such a fast-moving realm maybe the best one can do is make “educated guesses.”
Q: The tech industry has been changing rapidly for decades now. Will this trend continue?
Eric Schmidt: The story of technology is constant innovation and a replacement of leaders by new leaders. Who would have thought that Microsoft would not be the major leader today, given the history 15 or 20 years ago? And yet today, the leaders appear to be Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, maybe a few others. The reason this occurs, of course, is there’s technological discontinuities that really do change everything. And I think that’s going to continue.
The big thing in the last decade have been really two. The first is that consumers really are on the internet, and consumers are—there’s just a lot more consumers than there are businesses. So all of the leaders today are essentially consumer focused in one way or the other. And the second thing, of course, is that the architectural change to cloud computing, plus the change in the way PCs work, meant lots of different devices, all connected by this network to this very powerful set of cloud-computing computers. That model is one that can serve for decades.
Q: How comfortable are you in making predictions about the internet?
Schmidt: We can make some educated guesses, over the next five to ten years. And indeed, in our book, we try to do our best. Let me give you some examples. We know that Moore’s Law, which is the doubling of computational performance every couple of years, will continue for another five to ten years. There’s evidence that it’s slowing, and it’s possible that it will really slow down in the next 20. So, we’ve got a few more years of that.
We know that everyone’s going to be online because the prices of everything are falling. But we know that there are already six billion people using relatively inexpensive, dumb, feature phones. They will all get upgraded, or almost all of them will get upgraded. And we know that a network will come to span them together. What we don’t really know is, what will people do with those networks, and how will governments respond?
We speculate that people will, of course, have huge, new empowerment applications, which will make their lives much easier. And I think that’s a reasonable guess. We also speculate that governments, in particular, will find the empowerment of individuals counter to some of their policies.
In particular, the more authoritarian the government, the more the government is about the powerful, as opposed to the people being represented by the government, the more tension there will be as people discover that the governments weren’t quite being honest, weren’t really quite doing all the right things. And, of course, the perpetual problem of corruption and self-dealing that exists in many countries will now be well documented—a new threat to their hegemony.
Q: How do you run an innovative company when you have to work across many countries?
Schmidt: The characteristic of great innovators and great companies is they see a space that others do not. They don’t just listen to what people tell them; they actually invent something new, something that you didn’t know you needed, but the moment you see it, you say, “I must have it.” Of course, that is shaped by cultural norms and so forth. And the fact of the matter is that large corporations, in particular global ones, are subject to laws that differ by country to country. So,the American traditions of free speech may not be those that govern the laws elsewhere. And if you don’t figure out a way to deal with that, your employees get arrested. So there’s ultimately a check and balance, if you will, on how wild and crazy your innovation can be. But I can tell you that the average person wants their world better. And if you can find a way to improve the world and improve their lives, you can get around stupid government restrictions or other things which are counter the interests of the consumers.
Q: What is the future relationship between humans and computers?
Schmidt: I’ve come to a view that humans will continue to do what we do well, and that computers will continue to do what they do very well, and the two will coexist, but in different spaces. So computers, for example, have perfect memories. They remember everything, and they’re particularly good at needle-in-a-haystack problems: so, in these hundred pictures, or hundred facts, what’s different? Very difficult for humans to do those kinds of comparisons.
On the other hand, the aspects of human judgment, emotion, creativity are still difficult for computers to simulate, or at least, in a deeper way, really tackle. That may change over the next decades, but for the moment, the separation of powers means that computers will sit around and help you. They’ll serve as your assistants. You can talk to your computer; your computer will make suggestions.
The suggestions can be highly personal if you allow it. Where should I go? What should I do? Am I late? What are my choices now? And because the computer—exemplified by the mobile phone, which is a highly personal device, backed up by the supercomputer that it’s connected to—because that’s yours, if you will, it can really make your life better. Certainly at Google, that’s our goal.