From artificial intelligence to cheap smartphones, Google is on the frontline of technological development. But is it growing too big and moving too fast? A rare interview with Googles boss
When Sundar Pichai was growing up in Chennai, south-east India, “hes to” stimulate regular journeys to the hospital to pick up his mother’s blood-test ensues. It took an hour and 20 minutes by bus, and when he got there he would have to stand and queue for an hour, often to be told the results weren’t ready.
It took five years for his family to get their first rotary telephone, when Pichai was 12. It was a landmark moment.” It would take me 10 minutes to call the hospital, and maybe they’d tell me,’ No, come back tomorrow ‘,” Pichai says.” We awaited a long time to get a refrigerator, too, and I saw how my mom’s life changed: she didn’t need to cook every day, she could spend more time with us. So there is a side of me that has viscerally seen how engineering can make a difference, and I still feel it. I seem the optimism and energy, and the moral imperative to accelerate that progress .”
Now 45, Pichai is a tall, slight humankind whose voice is a soft harmony of Indian and American accents. Sitting in his office in a quiet corner of Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, California, he speaks thoughtfully, often pausing to find the right phrase. The chamber houses a few pieces of decorator furniture, and the requisite treadmill desk- the perfect metaphor for the tempo Pichai has to keep up with. Yet his is a disarmingly calm presence, a world away from the reign stereotype of the macho-genius tech CEO; when Pichai got the job, one Google employee was quoted as saying:” All the assholes have left .”
When Google restructured its sprawling business in 2015, it generated a mother company, Alphabet, as a home for its more experimental programmes- space exploration, anti-mortality- leaving its eye-wateringly lucrative consumer products with Google. Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, moved to Alphabet, leaving Pichai as the popular option for Ceo: he had already proved himself with his work on the web browser Chrome and Android, Google’s ubiquitous smartphone brand.
Compared with Page and Brin, and former CEO Eric Schmidt, Pichai is a modest and low-key figurehead.” I don’t do that many interviews ,” he says as we sit down in his “huddle” meeting room. But the more we talk, the more it becomes clear that his appointment may be Google’s shrewdest move yet: is he the perfect second generation chief exec? He surely has a lot in his Gmail inbox. The catalogue of Google disagreements is now so big it warrants its own Wikipedia entering, operating from tax avoidance and anti-trust issues to hosting radical content and recent claims of sexist employment practises( it currently faces a class action over pay discrimination ).
Earlier this year, Pichai announced a major conceptual shift for the company, moving from” mobile first” to” artificial intelligence[ AI] first “. This throws the focus securely on machine learning, developing voice-recognition products such as Google Home, a smart speaker that serve verbal requests to play music or control lighting; and, increasingly, visual recognition.
” In an AI-first world, interactions become even more seamless and natural ,” Pichai explains.” So, with voice, you can speak to things, and we are working on Google Lens, so your computer can see things the way you appreciate them .” Lens, due to launching afterwards this year, will add visual recognition to smartphone cameras: phase it at a restaurant, and it will find reviews online. Pichai also cites speech translation as a compelling instance of advanced AI; instant translation, both verbal and visual, going to be able with a high degree of accuracy within a few years, he says.
But this is where Google’s sell becomes tricky. Many developments in its services- tailoring ads according to personal data, utilizing someone’s location to present local info- are viewed as invasions of privacy. The corporation has been the target of intense scrutiny on this rating, particularly since 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA and MI5 had been accessing personal information via engineering corporations.
With the be applied in AI, those concerns move into a whole new realm. In 2013, Google bought DeepMind, the powerful UK-founded AI company, with the aim of developing its capabilities further; but there are profound questions around the safety and ethics of creating machines that they are able suppose and act for themselves. Does Pichai acknowledge these concerns?” I recognise that, in the Valley, people are preoccupied with the tempo of technological change ,” he says.” It’s tough to get that portion right … We rush sometimes, and can misfire for an average person. As humen, I don’t know whether we want change that fast- I don’t think we do .”
Another frequently elevated fear is Google’s seemingly unstoppable growth: a year ago, it unveiled an initiative to reach” the next billion” smartphone users, targeting India with a handful of tools designed for mobiles with slow internet connects, including a version of YouTube.
Isn’t this a kind of technological imperialism, bulldozing a route into the developing world? Pichai is prepared for this argument.” I want this to be a global corporation ,” he argues.” But it is also important that we are a local corporation … We don’t build only Google products and services- we build an underlying platform, too, so that when you enable smartphones to work well in a country, you likewise bootstrap the entrepreneurial system there. The two go hand in hand .”
His ambition is to construct Android so cheap that it can be used as part of a $30 smartphone; Pichai has said before that he can see” a clear track” to 5 billion users.” We want to democratise technology ,” he says.” Once everybody has access to personal computers and connectivity, then search operates the same, whether you are a Nobel laureate or just a kid with personal computers .”
By any measure, Pichai’s journey to the top of Google is a remarkable one. He was born into a modest middle-class household in Chennai, where he lived in a two-room apartment with his mother, a stenographer; father, an electrical engineer; and younger brother. The household had no vehicle; sometimes all four of them would travel on the family moped. Despite Pichai’s shyness, he was always confident and highly determined, says Professor Sanat Kumar Roy, who taught him for four years at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, where he analyzed metallurgical engineering:” I think he had some genius lurking in him .”
After graduating in 1993, Pichai won a scholarship for a master’s in materials science at Stanford. “His fathers”, who earned 3,000 rupees( PS63) a month, withdrew nearly a year’s salary from the family savings to pay for his son’s flight to San Francisco.” When I landed, my host family picked me up and driving back it seemed so brown ,” he remembers.” She corrected me:’ California is golden , not dark-brown !'”