Google’s Eric Schmidt on surveillance fears: “The protection for you is the competitive market’’

Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas founder Jared Cohen discussed their new book, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business, in front of a full auditorium Wednesday evening.

The event hosted by Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy drew a number of awkward laughs — courtesy of some comic air balls from moderating professor Bhaskar Chakravorti — but even more poignant questions from the audience.

Here’s a round up of the highlights — and lowlights — from the night’s event:

Haircuts, digital fluency, and 3 billion people joining the ‘smartphone revolution’

Bhaskar Chakravorti: Will continuous updates to the book be made on the Google Play Books version as they happen?


Eric Schmidt: That’s a good question.

What we’re trying to do now is update everybody on the things we talked about 9 months ago when the hardcover came out and it’s shocking how much has happened in the geopolitical world since. Not only Snowden but lots of conflicts — Syria, Ukraine, so forth — which are changed dramatically because of the principle of connectivity.

Jared Cohen: And the book is really just an excuse to talk about current events and look at them through a technical lens.

Chakravorti: The New Digital Age is coming and Syria and all that is really important but for me the most important aspect of your book was the anticipation that we’re going to have haircuts that are automated.

How is the new digital age different from the old digital age?

Schmidt: We ultimately concluded that there’s a massive shift of power to individuals: Three billion more people joining the smartphone revolution in the next five years.

That’s a one time way of changing the power structure with enormous implications.

The mobile phone of course is the solution to education, entertainment, safety and so forth, just in that one device. For people in poverty — the average person in the world — that’s a life changer.


Cohen: If you go to any other part of the world where people have a greater set of needs and challenges their fluency in that device is shocking to even some of the smartest engineers responsible for building the product.

Here we don’t even read the manual because we get a new phone every year.

Balkanization of the web and censorship

Cohen: As states go from a minority of their population being online to the entire population being online they’re going to find it very difficult to replicate the laws of the physical world in the virtual world.

The knee-jerk reaction may be a Balkanization of the Internet.

Schmidt: With apologies to the citizens of the Balkans …

Cohen: A feature of the Balkanization of the Internet is that you have like minded states who share similar norms or values getting together to engage in a collective editing of the web.

For instance you could have a group of countries that believe that women shouldn’t be as free deciding to edit the web.

Schmidt: The current situation in Turkey is a good example. Internet service provided under what they call the ‘family package’ which is to protect children — who we all agree should be protected — turns out to protect some of the incumbent political figures. It’s shocking how children are concerned about opposition.

They have the same problem in Russia. Russian kids? Best in the world. Very, very concerned about the opposition.

Utopias, dystopias, and Dennis Rodman


Chakravorti: Ten years from now are we looking at a more utopian or dystopian future? And not just in conflict ridden parts of the world but here in the United States where life, liberty, and the freedom to shop at Target are valued.

Schmidt: We had this debate. We concluded that the most mature democracies will have these crises and find some balance to these issues.

If you really, really, really want to eliminate crime you can put in a surveillance state. That’s obviously not what we should do, no one is advocating that, but maybe other countries will do that.

In places like the United State there will be a rough approximation of the right answer to these questions.

The question is really about countries without the mature democracies, governments that are organized not to serve its citizens at some basic level. What happens when the citizens figure this out?

Cohen: Let’s take the most extreme example. Eric and I went to North Korea a little over a year ago because Eric thought it would be a good idea.

Schmidt: Jared this is completely false. Jared’s idea of fun — he doesn’t like to go to normal countries. He’s never been to South Korea he’s only been to North Korea, the only person for which this is true.

Chakravorti: Did you go before or after Dennis Rodman?

Cohen: In the case of North Korea and the notion of cults of personality society and totalitarianism that you saw in the cold war, the Internet has eliminated it like smallpox. North Korea is the last one and once it’s gone it’s never going to return.

Chakravorti: Interesting statistic the highest use of Twitter is in Saudia Arabia. Something to think about …

Cohen: People don’t leave their houses.

On automated maritime freight…

Schmidt: I’m skeptical of driverless ships. What’s the value of that ship and the value of that cargo? You probably want to have one person kind of watching, if nothing else just to sort of feed the dog.

What about middle class jobs? It looks like they are all going to get automated very soon.

Schmidt: It’s a reality and a problem and one we have to keep working on. A few proposed solutions are:

— Try to focus on startups

— Try to focus on education that focuses on entrepreneurship

What should you do as an individual?

Prepare yourself for the fact that the cradle-to-the-grave lifetime employment model is probably not going to be viable moving forward. Prepare yourself with a safety net when unemployment strikes. Educate yourself about working with robots.

Where do you see online learning going?

Schmidt: MOOCs were pioneered by two people who work at Google when they were teaching at Stanford. They had an online class on artificial intelligence which was seen by 150,000 people and that’s a phenomenal achievement.

It’s useful to know that 90 percent of the people were out of the country and most people did not fully complete the course. But as a version zero: Extraordinary invention.

If this is version 1 how much more sophisticated will version 5 be? We’re going to learn what works.

I don’t think these will replace traditional residential colleges. I think there’s many reasons society has elected to put 18–20-year-olds in these sorts of places and I don’t think that’s going to change.

Do you see better business models coming from social media?

Schmidt: Simple rule, easy to remember. If you have a billion users we can make money.

From a German audience member: People are intimidated by the ecosystem Google is creating, one where people cannot escape even if they want to

Schmidt: If I were German I’d be more worried about the NSA.

There’s a reason why there’s an off button. There’s a reason why you have a choice: alternative search engines, car manufacturers, thermostats.

Ultimately, while we promise to do good — and I can assure you it’s sincere — the protection for you is the competitive market.

On Terrorism

Cohen: There’s a long tradition of terrorists being young and a longer tradition of young people doing stupid things and making mistakes. Add technology into the equation and it’s all documented.

It’s very difficult to imagine a terrorist in the future operating in Tora Bora and being even remotely relevant.

This is one instance actually where data permanence is going to make us all safer.

On Ray Kurzweil

Schmidt: Uh, Ray is working on some very interesting things.

[Audience laughter]

What about the future of the military and automated combat?

Cohen: We say in the book you’ll see war developing increasingly automated functions but the decision to pull the trigger will remain in human hands and should remain in human hands.

This transcript was edited and condensed.

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