Wednesday, 06 Jul, 2022


Google boss warns of threats to free internet 

Technology Desk |
Update: 2021-07-12 14:06:19
Google boss warns of threats to free internet  Sundar Pichai [Photo collected]

The free and open internet is under attack in countries around the world, Google boss Sundar Pichai has warned.

He says many countries are restricting the flow of information, and the model is often taken for granted.

In an in-depth interview with the BBC, Pichai also addresses controversies around tax, privacy and data.

And he argues artificial intelligence is more profound than fire, electricity or the internet.

Pichai is chief executive of one of the most complex, consequential and rich institutions in history.

I spoke to him at Google's HQ in Silicon Valley, for the first of a series of interviews I am doing for the BBC with global figures.

As boss of both Google and its parent company Alphabet, he is the ultimate leader of companies or products as varied as Waze, FitBit and DeepMind, the artificial intelligence pioneers. At Google alone he oversees Gmail, Google Chrome, Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Docs, Google Photos, the Android operating system and many other products.

But by far the most familiar is Google Search. It's even become its own verb: to Google.

Over the past 23 years, Google has probably shaped the mostly free and open internet we have today more than any other company.

According to Pichai, over the next quarter of a century, two other developments will further revolutionise our world: artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Amid the rustling leaves and sunshine of the vast, empty campus that is Google's HQ in Silicon Valley, Pichai stressed how consequential AI was going to be.

"I view it as the most profound technology that humanity will ever develop and work on," he said. "You know, if you think about fire or electricity or the internet, it's like that. But I think even more profound."

Artificial intelligence is, at base, the attempt to replicate human intelligence in machines. Various AI systems are already better at solving particular kinds of problems than humans. For an eloquent exposition of the potential harms from AI, try this essay by Henry Kissinger.

Quantum Computing is a totally different phenomenon. Ordinary computing is based on states of matter that are binary: 0 or 1. Nothing in-between. These positions are called bits.

But at the quantum, or sub-atomic level, matter behaves differently: it can be 0 or 1 at the same time - or on a spectrum between the two. Quantum computers are built on qubits, which factor in the probability of matter being in one of various different states. This is mind-boggling stuff, but it could change the world. Wired has an excellent explainer.

Pichai and other leading technologists find the possibilities here exhilarating. "[Quantum] is not going to work for everything. There are things for which the way we do computing today would always be better. But there are some things for which quantum computing will open up an entire new range of solutions."

Pichai rose through the ranks of Google by being the most effective, popular and respected product manager in the company's history.

Neither Chrome, the browser, nor Android, the mobile operating system, were his idea (Android was for a while led by Andy Rubin). But Pichai was the product manager who led them, under the watchful eyes of Google's founders, to global domination.

In a sense, Pichai is now product managing the infinitely greater challenges of AI and quantum computing. He is doing so as Google faces a daily barrage of scrutiny and criticism on several fronts - to name but three: tax, privacy, and alleged monopoly status.

BDST: 1406 HRS, JUL 12, 2021

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