Global frameworks the way forward for AI and data privacy — Google CEO

A recent BBC interview, conducted by Amol Rajan and broadcasted on the 12th July, provided in-depth views of Google CEO Sundar Pichai, on the influence of tech on society, as well as the evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing and data privacy.

Google CEO Pichai arrived at the corporation in 2004, at a time that followed the boom, bubble and crash, and when the Internet had plenty of room to grow. According to the Google CEO, “since I got access to computing and saw the difference it made in my life, I’ve been really passionate about making access to information and computing radically more accessible”.

Influence on the human race

“I’ve always felt there’s this constant progress which comes with technology. I go through these thought experiments and ask what must [the progress] have been when the printing press was invented, or during the Industrial Revolution.

“I do think the changes are accelerating. Just when you’re getting used to something, things seem to be moving beyond that.”

Pichai went on to state that he sympathised with people who believe the evolution of tech needs to slow down, and admitted: “The world is getting more complex, and while technology gives access to things you’ve never had before, I think it adds to the complexity, too.”

In the BBC interview conducted by Rajan, a 2018 New York Times article featuring a conversation with Pichai was cited, which quoted the Google CEO as stating: “Technology doesn’t solve humanity’s problems”. Expanding on this perspective, Pichai explained that while it’s a powerful enabler, “I don’t think it has the answers to the deeper, more meaningful questions.

“It still isn’t going to make sure the world’s population gets vaccinated. That’s up to society and policymaking to solve problems like that.”

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Managing the evolution of AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been quickly evolving, playing a gradually larger role in people’s lives. Looking forward to the next quarter of a century, given the evolution that the Internet has made in this time frame, Pichai expressed belief that while AI is still in its early stages, people will need to ensure that the technology develops in a way that benefits society.

“I expect [AI] to play a foundational role across every aspect of our lives, be it healthcare, education, how we manufacture things, and how we consume information,” he said.

“Today, it’s already changing our lives in simpler ways. In healthcare, when a radiologist is doing scans, [AI] may be acting as an assistant, flagging where [the radiologist] may want to give an extra look, or prioritise, because it looks worrisome.

“Over time, we’ll be with more intelligent systems, and it can make humans more productive than we’ve ever imagined.”

When asked whether society is unprepared for the rise in AI, Pichai said that while this may partly be true, human potential is always underestimated, citing how we’ve withstood wars, pandemics such as the Spanish Flu, and the Great Depression in the US. Additionally, he identified climate change as an area of widespread urgency, and initiatives such as the Paris Agreement as an example of how “humanity rises to the occasion”.

Managing competition

Amol Rajan then asked whether Pichai was concerned about competition in the AI space, and whether this would overshadow the need for cooperation, to which the Google CEO responded: “I definitely think there will be a competitive aspect to it, and national security aspects.

“But where I draw the parallel to climate change, is AI is profound enough that you’re not going to reach safety on a unilateral basis.

“To truly [achieve] peaceful coexistence with AI, you would, over time, need global frameworks and constructs. Everyone will be affected in the same way as the climate, and I think that will draw people together.

“As the world becomes more prosperous, and when there is economic growth, everyone [will want] the same thing in the end to some extent.”

Quantum computing

As for quantum computing, an area of technology that’s beginning to grow in prominence, Pichai said that quantum can provide opportunities to simulate and understand the world.

“[Using quantum] we can design better batteries, simulate the weather better, and predict adverse events better. The opportunities are endless,” he explained to Rajan.

18 months ago, Google declared that they had achieved quantum supremacy, a term that represents an important step towards realising the promise of quantum computers. Google’s quantum computer carried out a calculation that would take a traditional computer around 10,000 years to complete, in just 200 seconds.

When asked about the progress made since this achievement, Pichai said: “What we’re looking to do next is to build an ‘error-corrected quantum computer’. This means that we need to show it is stable enough. Quantum computers are very fragile.

“We’re trying to design stable quantum computers, which is probably still a decade away. We’re building state-of-the-art labs, and have a clear goal to hire people and make progress.”

Addressing data privacy

The BBC interview then shifted towards recent controversies around data privacy. After stating that much of what Google does would be possible without consumers trusting the corporation with their data, and that Google provided choice regarding data usage, Pichai fielded a question from Rajan regarding the notion that the corporation profits from the profiling of users.

In response, he said: “Most of the data we store isn’t from Gmail or photos, and we can give that information back if [users] want it.

“For advertising, we just need limited contextual information. If you type ‘digital cameras’ into Google, understanding you’re looking for digital cameras, we are able to get you that right commercial information.

“We may need to know your location so we can give you relevant information [near] you, and that’s what users expect.”

According to Pichai, Google looked to mitigate misunderstanding around data privacy by launching auto-delete controls two years ago, to enable the continuous default of automatically deleting user data.

In addition, he praised EU GDPR, stating it provides companies with a framework to comply with, and gives users guarantees. Going forward, like with managing AI, Pichai said that more of this kind of regulation will be needed over time.

The full BBC interview with Google CEO Sundar Pichai, conducted by Amol Rajan, can be found here.

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.