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 .”

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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 !'”

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With Google co-founder Larry Page( on left ), Indian PM Narendra Modi and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Photo: Reuters

He speaks of that time as a real culture shock, when he was grappling with his first experiences of calculating.” I didn’t understand the internet. The change was too much for me. I believe I was a little lost. But I felt the Valley was a special place. People would take me seriously for my ideas , not because of who I was or where I came from. It’s the remarkable thing about America we take for granted: that I could come and, after day one, my opinions mattered .”

After Stanford, Pichai worked at McKinsey and learnt for an MBA, before joining Google in 2004. Two programmes cemented his reputation within the organisation. Chrome, the now ubiquitous web browser, began as an experiment by his team of ten engineers. He remembers the moment they got a prototype operation, and realised it was pretty good.

But there was significant resist: nobody wanted the challenges facing taking on Microsoft’s mighty Internet Explorer.” Most people here didn’t want us to do a browser, so it was a little bit stealthy. Once we had it up and running, I remember showing it to Larry and Sergey- and even then there was a lot of scepticism .” But Pichai got his way: Chrome was released in 2008 and now reports for virtually 60% of the market, according to NetMarketShare, while Internet Explorer languishes on less than 16%.

Android, Google’s smartphone software, is now used by two billion people, but started as a small company bought by Google in 2005. In 2013, Android’s founder Andy Rubin was replaced by Pichai. With characteristic diplomacy, Pichai says now that the business needed a different approach.” To do well and innovate, you need to have a construct by which people can work together , not is built around individual people who are superstars .”

Still, there is no denying that Pichai has had something of a superstar’s rise himself. Since becoming CEO, he has overseen seven products, each of them used by more than a billion people: Search, YouTube, Gmail, Chrome, Maps, Android and the Google Play Store, through which the company sells apps, music, movies and books.

Running a business that has more customers than specific populations of any country on Earth comes with its own unique headaches, namely a complex( and sometimes competing) scope of geopolitical and social issues. The prospect of regulation is looming- intensified by recent concern about political ads bought by the Russians to influence the US election. The European Commission last month levied a PS2. 2bn fine against Google for mistreating its predominance in search advertise, and aims to push ahead with plans to army tech monsters to pay more tax.

Against all these issues, Pichai pits Google’s willingness to look for collaborative solutions. He wearily explains the company’s position on taxation; it became so synonymous with “tax-efficient” business practices that a 2015 levy on multinationals was dubbed the” Google taxation “.” With tax, we would only argue for a more reasonable world taxation structure ,” he says. Is he is recommended that Google could and should pay more taxation, if the loopholes were closed? That would be quite a contrast to Schmidt, who once said he was ” proudly capitalistic” and insisted Google took advantage simply of government incentives. Pichai neatly sidesteps this by citing the Paris climate agreement which, at the least until very recently, was an example of international collaboration:” It is super-important that humanity figures out more world cooperative frameworks to solve problems. No single corporation or country can change the pace of progress .”

In a speech to the UN in New York last month, Theresa May challenged engineering firms to take more responsibility for their role in facilitating terrorist activity online, demanding they take down extremist content within two hours, the window in which you typically shared the most. Isn’t it fair to insist a company such as Google shares responsibility for another unintended outcome of its vastly profitable success?

” She’s trying to address an important trouble ,” Pichai agrees,” and we should do better than we are doing today. The scale of these things is very difficult. In abstract, we have no disagreement, but the practicality is agreeing on a lot of important things .” These agreements led to an announcement in June that Google would add alerts and block ads from inflammatory videos, and would increase the use of both human and algorithmic moderators to flag and remove the most extreme videos. Within the context of its western coast libertarian ideology, Google also has to strike a difficult balance between letting all parties freedom to express their views, while not facilitating terrorism. This could explain why, rather than speak more publicly about its policies, Google is choosing to partner with other tech firms, including one recent initiative with the UN counter-terrorism committee. Outsourcing the problem might make it feel slightly more comfy for Google, which does not want to emphasise its geopolitical power.

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‘ This generation of kids needs to deal with a new world .’ Photograph: John Lee for the Guardian

Pichai says all the right things, but there is a fine line between thoughtful( the word his colleagues most often use to describe him) and evasive. Google has long had a propensity to avoid anything that looks just like a political issue and simultaneously come to represent so many of the indulgings of the tech industry; even San Francisco’s spate of protests against gentrification were targeted around Google, rather than the luxury passenger shuttles of all the other tech firms.” As a company, we end up has become a symbol for many things, whether we want to or not ,” Pichai says.” We have to hold ourselves to a far higher bar than everybody else. When we construct mistakes it is very costly .”

Recently, he fired an engineer who wrote a controversial 10 -page memo arguing against diversity initiatives, and claiming that the lack of women in tech was due to biological changes. James Damore outraged women at Google and the wider industry, and fired up the rightwing press, by claiming that Google employees with conservative opinions had to stay” in the wardrobe “. One columnist was contended that Pichai should be fired for not accepting the engineer’s concerns.

But while many critics seemed to belief the decision to fire Damore as a statement about the right to free expression, Pichai viewed it as a workplace issue.” Plainly, you have an important right to freedom of speech, but you likewise have an equal right to work free of harassment and discrimination. When we talk about women in tech, our representation is around 20%. Nobody is trying to socially engineer anything[ here]- we are trying to solve hard troubles. We were the first to publish our diversity numbers .”

In April, the US Department of Labor accused Google of” systemic compensation gaps against girls pretty much across the entire workforce “. In September, a class action lawsuit was filed, alleging women were segregated into lower paying roles.” Any hour you are in conflict with the government, you are never going to look good ,” Pichai admits.” The overwhelmingly important thing is that we don’t have enough women in senior the responsibilities and higher-paying tasks. We are so fully committed to doing the right thing here, working on the underlying a matter that prevent women from achieving their true potential. I feel very strongly about it .”

Jen Fitzpatrick started at Google as an intern in 1999. She is now vice-president of products and engineering, and has worked with Pichai since he joined the company in 2004. Like everyone I speak to at Google, she says he is widely respected for his thoughtfulness.” Sundar is unafraid to build tough calls ,” Fitzpatrick says,” but before he makes that call, he makes sure he has heard from the right people across the company. He doesn’t construct tough bellows in isolation .”

Does he think some people in the Valley determined his appointment as a risk, given the predominate culture? Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates all cultivated reputations for abrasive egotism, a convenient narrative that condoned and even fostered bad behaviour. In June, the tech industry’s more prominent bad son, Uber’s former CEO Travis Kalanick, was pushed out of the company he co-founded after months of scandal.

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With spouse Anjali. Photograph: Getty Images

” I’m not a fan of one tale that tries to be archetypal ,” Pichai says. He fulfilled Jobs, and doesn’t think enough is said about his more positive sides, his exuberance and drive.” I do imagine the Valley has good examples of leaders. Hewlett and Packard, who founded the Valley, built a company with a very strong define of values and were extremely good to their people and partners. I never seemed these things were at odds with one another. For the scale of Google, it is even more important to work well with others. In words of a management philosophy, I try to find people- not that they aren’t individually brilliant at what they do- but people with the ability to transcend the work and work well with others .”

At home, Pichai describes himself as a news junkie who starts every day with an omelette, a cup of tea and a print copy of the Wall Street Journal. Back in India, where newspapers are omnipresent but expensive, he had to wait his become until his grandpa and father had read the paper, though he did discover to negotiate for the cricket pages. He lives with his wife Anjali, whom he met at college, and their daughter, Kavya, and son, Kiran. He is familiar with the screen-time negotiation that goes on in most family homes, and used to restrict their period, but is now not “sure hes got one”. All of us are more comfortable when our kids read books, he says, but if they read on a Kindle, does that count? And what if the YouTube videos they watch are educational?

” There are many extraordinary people at Google who would say they expended high school playing video games all the time ,” he says.” Video plays were how many people got into computer science, so a part of me thinks this generation of children needs to deal with a new world. Previous generations ever feel uncomfortable with new technology .” In the Wright friends’ age, he points out, there were serious newspaper sentiment parts were concerned that bicycles would jeopardise young lady, by enabling them to cycle away and flee.” Our children are also becoming better at dealing with visual knowledge. But I’m not saying I have the answers. I struggle with it, too .”

In India he has become famous, and is mobbed wherever he goes. His narrative is the one every family nightmares of: hard work and huge reward. Bigger egos might be seduced to exploit that popularity: would he ever return to India and move into politics? He looks somewhat embarrassed and changes in his seat.” I wouldn’t be any good at it … But I do want to go back to India and give back. I feel incredible assistance when I go there; it is humbling .”

When I ask how it feels to be in charge of Google, Pichai pauses and seems determinedly at the storey, then out of the window.” History shows that the opposite of what people were worrying about is typically true-life. Go back 10 times and look at the most significant market cap companies: the bigger you are, the more you may be at a disadvantage .” He talks of the importance of creating small teams with limited resources available, even within a company with 66,000 employees and a market value of $642 bn.” As a big company, you are constantly trying to foolproof yourself against being big, because you assure the advantage of being small, nimble and entrepreneurial. Somewhat much every great thing gets started by a small squad .”

It’s not lost on him that Google’s greatest threat could be its own success. And it is also exposing to have it confirmed that when you reach the top the most difficult thing you worry about is sliding back up again.” You always think there is someone in the Valley, working on something in a garage- something that will be better .”

Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ technology/ 2017/ oct/ 07/ google-boss-sundar-pichai-tax-gender-equality-data-protection-jemima-kiss