Thursday, 31 January 2013

Global Connectivity (Eric Schmidt)

These are some selective notes from an excellent talk given by Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google. (January, 2013) The full talk (excluding audience questions) may be seen here.

It's amazing to think that Cambridge University was founded almost two and a half centuries before even the printing presses were invented. As an institution, it has lived through great changes, and its success owes both to its stability as well as to its adapting to that change. Greater connectivity comes with enormous benefits and unprecedented opportunities for human progress, yet it is also associated with all the major challenges of the current age: (1) low-flying backyard drones, (2) robot stole my job, (3) no privacy, and (4) too many choices.

There are still 5 billion people in the world today who are not connected to the internet, but they will be over the next five to seven years. Who are they? Many of you might know of Google's 20% rule that anyone who works at Google gets to spend 20% of their time working on projects that inspire them. My project was to meet these future 5 billion users. I have travelled to North Korea, South Sudan, Chad, Afghanistan, Pakistan. One of the problems of these countries is unreliable electricity, but soon there will be mobile phones which can be charged by the movement of one's shoes upon the ground. As an example of the benefits of this connectivity, it means that someone in Rwanda can check if a medicine is in stock before walking to the store. This may not seem like a big deal, but when it's a ten-mile walk to the nearest pharmacy, for sure it's a big deal. Another example is Congolese fishermen who can link up with buyers to avoid later throwing away catch no-one wants. Another is the mapping out of safe-routes in danger-zones. Connectivity is highly valued. Where it is taken away, communities revolt.

It is telling that while mobile services have spread widely, authoritarian governments have been reluctant and slow at turning on the data services. Even the worst regimes can be influenced by shame when corruption and abuse are exposed. It is connectivity of data that empowers citizens as we saw in the Arab spring. There is a risk however that public documentation may invite retribution outside the law. Information alone is not enough. It can be like a perfect mirror, but it still needs human institutions of justice, police and military for proper enforcement. In Mexico, the last thing many victims of crime want to do is to report it to the police because of the fear of their links to a criminal underworld. So technology is being used for anonymous reporting of crimes. We have a face-off between compromised humans and compromised technology. Who will win? My hope and expectation is that technology will win out.

I can imagine a time when there is a delegation of powers between computers and humans, between observation and diagnosis, and judgment and enforcement. The pressures of automation are huge. They threaten low-skilled jobs, even in poor nations! The answer is education. Education is highly correlated with connectivity, especially women's education. The infrastructure of connectivity is the most valuable investment a country can make to help citizens advance themselves.

This is not to under-estimate the problems of advancing connectivity which I began with. Technology empowers individuals, but it empowers states also. Anonymous identities can protect informers against corruption, but it can also be used as a cover for crime. But my contention is that no country is worse because of the internet, and that to every problem we can find solutions. The online world is a whole new space, interacting with but separate from the real world, with greater flow of information, but also greater detection and record-keeping. This possibility for information to exist in perpetuity poses a problem for both states and individuals. As well as the need for high-level encryption, the answer is again education. Information wants to be free, and as the adage goes, don't say or post anything that you wouldn't want printed in the media. In the future, this will include also accountability to the websites we visit, those we include in our networks and what we "like". In the case of our children, I think it will mean that parents will have to have the "online privacy talk" before the "sex talk".

In response to the problem of entrancement that we may see in our children when using technology, it's important to remember: there is still an off-button! And also, this entrancement is not all negative. It is likely to adapt parts of the brain that enable us to process large quantities of data and to enhance our abilities to imagine an alternative reality. Darwin's theory is not the survival of the fittest or of the strongest, but of those most able to adapt to the challenges the new technology will bring. There will still always be a need for deep reading, and for talking to each other. And this is what universities like this are for. It's very refreshing to talk to you and to have you all actually listen to me, while at Google my audience sit glued to their laptops. Thank you!

In summary: Education, Encryption, Deep-Thinking, Accountability & Embrace Change. It's what makes us human.  

Thought-provoking stuff!

Give me some Bob Marley redemption songs...

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