Eric Schmidt on UK foreign policy, Julian Assange, and what worries him

Connecting the world may be Eric Schmidt’s dream, but it is one which could dramatically change the shape of the internet today as we know it, dominated as it is, by western users from affluent countries.

I had never considered this before, the impact of  digitally empowering repressed citizens who are currently denied access to cyber space; these are the next 5 billion users who are predicted to eagerly sign up when their leaders realise they can no longer afford to ignore the world wide web for the sake of their country’s economy.

This was one of the issues highlighted in Cambridge by Eric, Google’s executive chairman,  speaking on Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power.

As Hermann Hauser pointed out from the audience:

“Most of today’s internet users are Western. I think it will be very interesting to see what happens with the next 5 billion users because if you use this as a statistical mean, in many ways the internet is a tool that pegs the shape of the users, so if the majority of users had different ideas about how they might want to use his new tool, maybe we will get a completely different meaning.”

Here are some edited highlights from the symposium.

UK government and its foreign policy

I asked Eric (suggested by Neville Hobson), for one specific thing he would like the UK government do to support a free and open internet in countries where this is not the case – he recently returned from North Korea where there is very limited internet access. Eris is a member of David Cameron’s Advisory Council.

He replied: “The foreign policy of the British government should include a strong statement that freedom of internet is better for everybody, its better for communication, its better for understanding, its better for British citizens, its better for non-British citizens.

He said in countries where Britain had influence, we should use this to try to get everybody connected with fibre and wifi p and the citizens will then take care of everything else.

 Julian Assange

Eric mentioned how he had visited Julian in his Norfolk refuge. In his words:

I went to visit Julian Assange in his previous place of residence and I spent a lot of time with him trying to understand his view. His view, as I heard it, was that genuine evil is done by governments in a systematic way, so if you are going to have a genocide, a massacre or these other terrible things you have to plan it. It is possible to have bad local things, somebody get hurt, but to do it systematically requires planning. His view is that since governments are naturally going to tend to doing bad things like this, that it would be better if governments always published everything that they did immediately so there was no possibility for them to go down this road, before this, in other words you catch your government doing this, so he justified Wikileaks on that basis.

There are a couple of problems with this.  You have to decide if you agree with the argument, and secondly, if you agree with the argument, who gets to decide what gets leaked? His modest answer is himself. And he had a complicated set of reasoning which involved building repository, building trust, that the leakers know that he will release..,he claims he has newspaper privilege, etc…

I was struck by the clarity of Julian’s argument because it is so clear, it’s a clear set of principles. What’s interesting is that the state did respond and essentially cut off the financing. It’s clear to me that many many people are mad at this guy and he is has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy for quite some time.

There is a debate in America over whether Wikileaks impacted or not. The debate can be understood as the west coast generally celebrates it, and the east coast thinks it is criminal. I’m struck when I talk about this. In California or Seattle you hear one answer, you do it in the East coast you get a very different answer and historians will judge it.

Hacker activism

The problem I have with hacker activism is that the liberal in me, my West coast Californian celebrates this kind of dissidents, but the parent, executive citizen worries about who gets to decide, and what is the check and balance on that person, essentially you want to have some way of making that decision and you don’t want it to to be done randomly, which it seems is where we are now.

 Eric’s big worry

One of the things that’s not understood is how severe the automation crisis is going to be for low wage work countries. I’ve been visiting all these different countries, they are all attempting to move up the value chain, the fact of the matter is that robots are taking their jobs. Volume manufacturing is replacing the need for their skills.

So I worry that one of the sources of future conflicts that we don’t understand will be that there is no way for my country to get better because the robot took my job.  You can imagine that 20 years from now, China will have tremendously difficult demographic problem, and it will also have a very serious unemployment problem because today they are not highly automated, but then they will be highly automated and require fewer workers.

Sometimes you want to have a social policy that deals with the very reality of people, that people are better off when they are working, and I think we haven’t discussed this in the seminar, but it is a core issue.

Future rankings based on identity

I personally believe we are going through a phase transition We went from a situation with the internet where people believed everything they heard and I think now the correct belief is to say,’ I’m not really sure, but I will check’. My personal belief is that ultimately, ranking engines and other systems will start to give more credit to people who are willing to identify themselves with their real names, and a classic example is Facebook has a real name policy, Google Plus has a real name policy, and all of the social world has moved more or less to a place where you have to give your real name, or something that looks like a real name, as opposed to daffyduck4, and this has really cut down the crazy people.

The problem with crazy people is that they are more numerous than you think and they have a lot of free time.

Corporations versus guns

It’s true that corporations have power, but they don’t have guns. And having outfaced these choices in countries that have guns, we pull back.

If we are doing something with one of these countries, I agree that there is significant corporate power, and against raw naked power, guns still win. Here is an example.

In Thailand, somebody uploaded a video which had shoes over the king’s face. This was a nasty thing to do in their culture, the video was taken down, our employee fled the country, and correctly so, because that person would now be in jail for it.

Drones and robotic killing machines

I am much more concerned about unauthorized used of drones. To me the problem is not their military use, I am much more concerned about their random use by a crazy person or group for asymetric impact. You  kill a small number to terrorise everybody.

My own view is that being fully autonomous will be a long time coming, there will direct human control for that reason.

However, the scariest possible one is mechanised robots that just go whooo, they just destroy everything, they just kill everything in front of us, instead of on the ground, from the air. It’s technically possible, the good news is that we would know about it and it would cause a huge reaction.

Future networks

We are all connected, so we all want to be famous and we all put up our websites and blogs and discover nobody cares. And yet some people will become famous. If you look at the structure of fame on the net, a very small number of sites people are famous, and everybody else falls off very dramatically.  I thought a lot about why this is, it’s a physics principle.

It’s going to be a race now, it’s a race about speed, I call this the speed rule. Everything has to happen faster, you have to go with these networks very fast or somebody else will get ahead of you.

I also believe that economic development in corporations will largely be determined by network platforms. In Google, for example, the network platform is Android, for Apple it is Apple, you can see they have phenomenal impact, they have many, many  hundreds of thousands of developers, and for each of us, identifying where those network platforms are will ultimately be the way in which you become very successful, and I think the new thinking is that these networks can be global, so if you care a lot about poverty or guns, there has got to be a strategy for you to quickly become the defining platform around that.

To me this is an area of enormous importance.

Raspberry Pi

Ending on a happy note, Eric’s four day visit in Cambridge this week for this lecture series included a visit to a Cambridge school with Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton. Google Giving are providing 15,000 Raspberry Pis to school children around the UK which Eric says “may allow some incredible smart people to really leap frog over anywhere else in the world.”

*Well done to CRASSH for arranging this terrific series of lectures, sponsored by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

Here are two video links to Eric’s lectures, and to Mark Littlewood’s blog post who was there earlier this week.

*The Guardian reports on Eric’s terrifying vision of drone wars, virtual kidnaps and privacy for kids.