When Eric Schmidt took the stage today in New York City, he spent less time talking about business at Google (where he was previously CEO and now serves as executive chairman of parent company Alphabet), and more time focused on new technologies and the bigger picture.
Schmidt was interviewed by Charlie Rose at The Economic Club of New York, where he seemed most excited about the possibilities of advances in biology and medicine, as well as artificial intelligence. He also made a general call to tackle important problems with science and technology. The key, he said, is finding consensus.
“The country is full of smart people, right?” Schmidt said. “The American model got us through the last 30 years. Compared to other models, I’ll take ours. But we need to focus on it. We need to agree, roughly, on what these projects are.”
What kinds of problems and projects is he talking about? Well, the examples he offered included the 3D printing of buildings and using your own stem cells to grow new body parts when they’re needed. More broadly, he said he’s seeing an “incredible revolution in medicine and this incredible revolution that’s going on in knowledge.”
The challenge, Schmidt said, is that we’re spending “all our time arguing about political issues that are ultimately not that important,” while “not doing enough things that are transformative.”
“We’ve gone from an era where we thought about solving problems that were very, very big,” he said. “We now define them as problems of special interests. Everyone’s guilty. I’m not making a particular political point here.”
Schmidt seemed excited enough about the possibility of medical breakthroughs that Rose asked him: If he was starting over today, would he be more likely to go into computer science or biology?
“Both are having a renaissance,” Schmidt said.
He went on to describe meeting with computer scientists who work in biology. He predicted that in the future, you’ll have a healthcare record that’s “more than just a medical bill” — it will combine your medical data with larger statistical trends to tell your doctors about your conditions and risks. (Google’s AI company DeepMind is already working with the UK’s National Health Service to perform this sort of analysis with a focus on kidney disease, though the deal has prompted concerns about privacy.)
When it comes to AI, Schmidt said Google, IBM and Facebook are working on very different things. IBM’s Watson, he said, has a model that “works particularly well for Jeopardy and complicated problem solving,” while Facebook’s just-announced DeepText is focused on natural language. Google, meanwhile, “wants to build an underlying platform that allows you to do all this stuff.” And the DeepMind team in particular is looking to build computer systems that learn the same way humans do.
Schmidt dismissed concerns that AIs could eventually become smart enough to be a threat to humans. In his view (which he admitted is based on intuition), at least one more major breakthrough is needed before artificial intelligence reaches “the kind of human level intelligence that everyone has in this room, let alone get past it.”
“The concerns over, ‘Oh my God, the robot is loose in the lab and basically decided to kill its owners’?” he said. “I saw that movie. It’s really good.”
Rose pressed Schmidt to talk more about the relationship between the tech giants Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft: To what extent are they all competing with each other?
“We’ve never had that many companies fighting so brutally against each other and also collaborating,” Schmidt replied. As an example of that collaboration, he noted that Google’s apps are also running on Microsoft’s and Apple’s platforms.
And he touched on one more political question before the interview ended. When Rose asked him about working with the government on encryption, Schmidt said, “The industry is united in saying that government forcing us to weaken encryption is a bad idea. If we are forced by law to weaken encryption, it won’t just be government that has access to information on your phone, it will also be the bad guys.”
“We’ve taken the position there need to be other solutions rather than forcing a weakening or a back door,” he added.
Schmidt also said that after Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance, Google worked to make sure users’ data was encrypted, both when it’s “at rest and in transit.”
“If you want something you want to keep private, the best place to keep it is in Gmail,” he said.