Eric Schmidt, Alphabet’s Executive Chairman, worries that the startup nation has worthy competitors
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Eric Schmidt at Google's offices in Israel. Photo credit: Yaneev Avital / Geektime

Eric Schmidt at Google's offices in Israel. Photo credit: Yaneev Avital / Geektime

In a chat in Tel Aviv with Google’s VP of Engineering Yossi Matias, Schmidt says what he thinks Israel – and the world – needs to do to catch up

In a fireside chat at Google’s offices in Tel Aviv with Yossi Matias, VP of Engineering at Google and the founder and managing director of their development center in Israel, Alphabet’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt claimed that the Startup Nation, while entrepreneurially excellent, is starting to face “worthy competitors” from other countries.

“I am worried the Startup Nation has competitors,” he stated to the crowd. “The most obvious one is Beijing, and in Northern Europe, such as Finland, there are a number of worthy competitors.”

In a talk marking the 10th anniversary of Google’s R&D center in Israel, Schmidt advised Israel, with some optimism, that, “In addition to being great, you need to work harder. That’s something I don’t think you all as a country fear.”

Schmidt noted that for its size, “Israel has a super role in technological innovation,” and that Israel’s R&D center, which employs more than 500 engineers, “has taken over much of [Google’s] cloud infrastructure work.” He said this made sense considering that the Google employees in Israel “are very deep technologically in math, science,” noting that those skills are, “what’s required to contribute at that level.”

While both Matias and Schmidt noted Israeli achievements such as computer vision car startup Mobileye, Israeli Googlers having started Google’s project to bring historical archives online, and Campus for Moms, most of the discussion focused on how Schmidt expects technology to shape our future.

Hey Google, how will technology change our future?

Image Credit: Yaneev Avital / Geektime

Image Credit: Yaneev Avital / Geektime

Throughout his talk, Schmidt’s excitement was evident for how machine learning, i.e. getting computers to understand human patterns and aggregate this information at scale to make more informed decisions, will assist humans in becoming smarter, constantly peppering the conversation. Because of the need to collect lots of data for machine learning to be effective, he stated that, “The next great companies will have a component that is crowdsourced and get better as a result of the crowdsourcing.”

His belief in the power of the crowd instantly brings to mind the Israeli company Waze, which Google bought for basically this reason. He also noted promising examples of crowdsourcing information in the health sciences, where doctors and scientists could pool genomic data, historical data, and hospital information at scale. “Wouldn’t it be great if all cancer treatments were all in one database, and we could see which one is the best?”, he asked.

In terms of machine learning’s overarching implication for Alphabet, he explained that Google Co-Founder Larry Page has focused for a long time on moving the company from “search to suggest.” Instead of you typing in what you want in search, Alphabet should be able to act as more of an assistant. And the internal name for this work at Alphabet is as he said, “not shockingly, the Assistant.”

Some current examples include the Google Allo app, which lets you “smart reply, understands context, and suggests answers,” as well as the voice activated Google Home.

He also encouraged Google users to share as much information as possible for the greater good of personalization – and, well, advertising: “With your permission, the more information you contribute to us, the more you share, the more the assistant personalizes these suggestions.” For example, Schmidt said that the assistant in the future could notice that he had visited Israel a year ago, tell him, “This is what you were talking about,” so, “Don’t be an idiot,” and suggest talking about other relevant things instead. 

While he couldn’t give an exact figure, he thought that in about five years, we could get “the kind of attention you get from an excellent human assistant” from a computer-assisted device.  

Is Eric Schmidt worried about artificial intelligence replacing jobs?

Faced with the fears over the long term implications of AI, Schmidt told the audience head on that, “There’s no question that these technologies will replace jobs, and that’s always been true.”

However, he then made the classic argument that, “With history, more jobs will be created than lost. If you look at other periods of technological progress, jobs were created, many millions on a net basis, just different jobs.”

Schmidt did not elaborate on the details of what kind of jobs of which he was referring.

He believes artificial intelligence-assisted technology “makes people smarter, and helps people make smarter choices and become better employed.” Then, he added that, “If I have learned anything, the next generation is far smarter than you and I. We need to give them the tools to figure out these future businesses, and the faster, the better.”

Responding to a question from the audience about what kept him up at night, he answered, “You are always worried that there’s new tech innovation not on your radar screen that either you’ve not prioritized or that you’ve not seen.”

While he thinks Google successfully made the transition from being a web company to a mobile company, he posited that, “The key thing as a leader is are you making the transition to the next platform, or will someone else occupy that space? If you’re not there, you can’t be there.”

Yossi Matias asks Eric Schmidt for his associations to various words

In a cute segment toward the end of the fireside chat, Yossi Matias asked Eric Schmidt what thoughts first came to mind when thinking of Israel, to which Schmidt replied, “Entrepreneurship.”

To see the view the interview in its entirety, check out our clip below.

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Laura Rosbrow-Telem

About Laura Rosbrow-Telem


I am a social entrepreneurship enthusiast: This is what happens when a former social worker becomes a tech journalist. I mostly write about startups, technology, peace and justice issues, cultural topics, and personal stuff. Before Geektime, I was an editor at the Jerusalem Post and Mic.

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