Imagination is the limit for Google

Since he joined Google’s board of directors in 2001, Eric Schmidt’s name has become synonymous with the California-based technology giant. That said, the 58-year-old American is very much a man on the move: From Chad and Libya and to Pakistan and Myanmar, Google’s executive chairman would like to see the whole world come online – including communist North Korea, “the most bizarre place in the world.”

Schmidt, who was ranked by Forbes as the 138th-richest person in the world, has co-authored “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business.” He recently visited Athens, where he met with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras before delivering a lecture at the Athens Concert Hall as part of the Megaron Plus series.

Before his speech, Schmidt spoke to Kathimerini newspaper about the empowering potential of the Internet, the future of Google and the worthwhile perils of the Digital Age.

Your new book is called “The New Digital Age.” The title suggests that we were in a digital age but that we have somehow entered a new digital age. Is that the case?

Yes, because I think everyone thinks of the Digital Age as sort of radio and television and they don’t understand that the real change is in how people behave. Because now you’ve invented a computer that is in everyone’s hands. It’s incredibly empowering in this sense. The overwhelming point is that we never had a situation where citizens had so much power compared to everyone else – the government, companies, each other and so forth. And with that power there’s good and bad and the book is about what governments will do after all these people are so empowered.

People are concerned about ever-closer cooperation between corporations and governments. Do you see a danger there?

Only in a theoretical way. Because the notion that we somehow always go to centralization is not accurate. The Internet is very decentralizing… Because the Internet is point to point, this can’t happen, because there is always a competitor who has an alternative and you’d have to regulate the Internet so roughly that it would go away… Iran has announced it is going to create its own intranet and they’re not going to have Israel in it. It will be a censored internet and Google is 100 percent opposed to that censorship. We think it is very bad.

Did the whole NSA scandal put you in a difficult position as a company?

Not really. Here is what I understand: The American newspapers and the Guardian reported through [former US spy contractor Edward] Snowden that there was a link between the NSA and Google. Google has denied that. I have denied it, the CEO of Google has denied it, the chief council has denied it, we have gone through our systems to make sure that there isn’t one that we don’t know about and we have strengthened our defenses. So the answer is no to them. Having answered that, there is a lot of evidence that the NSA was accumulating phone records of Americans – maybe 100 percent of the phone records and maybe 70 percent of the Internet traffic – as part of their mission to look for foreign terrorists.

But there is still the issue of preventing terrorism. You have said that you would prefer to prevent terrorism than to spend millions of dollars to invade Iraq.

Yes, I would prefer to prevent terrorism than to invade a foreign country and spend trillions of dollars and kill all those people.

So in a way you could use your own expertise and all the advantages that Google may have to help the country.

Yes, but we have to do so legally. The NSA is not allowed to spy on Americans, and that is in the [US] Constitution. I want to be clear about Google: Google does not work with the NSA and is not going to go and do that. One, it is not the right thing to do; two, it would p**s you off; and three, it is illegal. So the answer is no, no and no. There is no confusion in my answer.

Setting out into sci-fi territory

We have seen Google entering fields such as biotechnology and the car industry. Is there a limit to what the company can do in terms of business?

Well, the only limit is imagination. The sky is the limit, as they say. But it has to be interesting.

Some of your projects, such as the Calico anti-aging initiative or driverless cars, seem like a step into science fiction.

One great thing about science fiction is that it often anticipates what will happen in the future.

What I would rather say is that Google’s job is to invent good things about the future.

If we can help lower the number of road accidents – which is estimated at 30,000 deaths on highways in the United States every year – that would be a great thing.

Do you see a future for America as a global financial power in the 21st century?

The numbers indicate that China will surpass America in total GDP and GDP per capita somewhere around 2025-30. If India gets its act together you can expect something similar, offset perhaps by two decades, maybe 2045. That is a long time from now. I often thought Europe would be a fourth pillar, but Europe is not growing. But I think it’s fair to say that the US has been the typical economic superpower and now will be joined by China and others. I think that is a fair prediction.

You have said that the number of people connected to the Internet is smaller than we in the West tend to think.

In fact very few people are online. There are in the order of 7 billion people on Earth, there are about 2.3 billion people online, so we have twice as many offline as online. The majority of those people will come online but they will come on on smartphones, not on PCs, maybe not even on tablets, mostly on phones. Very, very cheap phones. Mobile Internet is the future… You have this emerging lower middle class in India, Indonesia and a lot of Arab and African countries.

You have visited many different places and seen immense cultural differences as well as differences in the way people perceive the things that we talk about. When these 4 billion people come online, will this cause major political or social changes, at least gradually?

We don’t really know. We know one thing is true: The adoption of mobile connectivity will raise expectations because people will say, “Why am I not getting the same thing as those other people?” What we don’t know is how the political systems will react to that. If you take a look at Egypt, almost no one would have predicted [the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood, and then the generals. In three years. In historical terms, that’s a very short period.

Data permanence

You have said that now, in the age of the Internet, people will not be famous for 15 minutes, as Andy Warhol famously said, but forever. Could you elaborate on that?

A lot of this is because of data permanence. And one of the sort of perverse aspects of the Internet is that everything is recorded now. So we are doing an interview, this interview will be published, people will read it, it will be around for the rest of my life. That’s true of everything I do now in public. I’ll give a speech right afterward, it will go on YouTube, it will be there forever. So, in that sense, you start off with almost no digital identity, you’re just a baby. But then you live your life you get more and more well known for the things that you have done and the things that people say about you. Now, your control over that actually declines as a percentage… There are some perverse effects. For example, in America there was a recent article about people who had been arrested but not convicted and now can’t get rid of that information. Let’s say they were arrested by mistake – mistakes do occur. You can’t get rid of it. It stays forever… the Internet has happened so fast that we haven’t made the social adjustments for data permanence.

Is there a danger for privacy?

Sure. There are downsides to everything. In our book it’s overwhelmingly positive. You always focus on the downside but the upside is really good. The upside is people can do commerce, they can learn, be educated, engage in business. You should fight for your privacy or you will lose it. I think you should fight for it because it naturally goes away; and it goes away because of fear.

So how do you fight for it?

As a person, you want to make sure that you understand when you’re giving up your information, you want to control your own privacy. But as a citizen you want to push back on restrictions over low-probability events. So what is happening now is that a single person is killed, which is terrible, and then everyone’s rights are taken away – think of the shoe bomb example in America. You want low-probability events to not completely restrict your freedom of movement because it has a chilling effect.

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