Google Chairman Eric Schmidt provided his perspective on technology and the role his company is playing in leading its development at a November 30 discussion at the University of Minnesota.
"The Future of the High-Tech Economy: How Technology is Changing Business, Education and Government," co-sponsored by the Carlson School, packed the Humphrey School's Cowles Auditorium. Attendees included members of the University administration as well as business leaders from around the community. Schmidt's talk was set up as an informal discussion session, with Steve Kelley, the director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy, providing questions from the room and online audience.
Schmidt talked briefly about how Google operates. He said the company is run by what he calls "20 percent time" in which employees can spend 20 percent of their time on ideas they like. "We have a lot of crazy ideas that we obviously encourage," he said. Twenty percent time gives employees the opportunity to work on these ideas and see where they lead. An important part of this model, Schmidt said, is the ability to handle it if something doesn't work out. "If you can't tolerate failure, you can't be at some level innovative," he said.
Given the pace of innovation, Schmidt made a point of emphasizing the importance of understanding the implications of a new product before releasing it into the market. He illustrated his point by talking about a time a young designer presented a product that would allow users to track their friends' locations in real-time on their mobile phones. "I said, 'Oh my God' and he thinks this is praise," Schmidt said.
Schmidt said he could see that any kind of real-time tracking could lead to serious privacy invasion issues. "We ultimately decided that it was OK to do a limited kind of product," he said. "It went from being accurate to being maybe accurate. This is a deadly serious issue-the issues of privacy and who retains that information."
The role of technology in fostering democracy
This then led into a discussion on the relationship between technology and democracy.
"I come to view it as we have the physical system, the world that we all understand, and we have another system, the virtual system, and each will keep the other in check," he said. Schmidt said the virtual system makes it harder for evil behavior to go unnoticed. This has been demonstrated when some countries have tried to limit or stop the flow of digital information. "One of the findings is when you do that it wakes up the whole country," he said. "To turn that off is equivalent to stopping the water supply. If you don't like what you see in the mirror, don't break the mirror."
Another important aspect of this technology is that it provides a voice for those who have never been heard from. "If you look at the math of mobile phone adoption, we have on the order of four billion. We think we can get another billion," he said. "The arrival of another billion people into the human conversation is really something. I think the benefit is very, very profound."
Schmidt on Steve Jobs
Schmidt also provided his thoughts on Steve Jobs and his legacy. "Steve I've known for 20 years. It's very hard to imagine that he's not with us," Schmidt said. "I hear his voice every day."
Schmidt characterized Jobs as one of the most important people of the century. He said there are not many business executives who have managed to found a company, have it come into trouble, and return to turn it into one of the most valuable companies in the world. He also said that Jobs was the only person he knew who could combine his technical knowledge with a sense of style and design. Jobs' legacy, in addition to millions of happy customers, is showing how important it is to have artists and designers at the same level as the system engineers. "It's sort of the defining point of how technology will go forward," Schmidt said.
A replay of the Schmidt's conversation at the University can be found at http://www.livestream.com/umntv.