This is not a great time for dictators says Google’s Eric Schmidt.

I love where I live. Every night this week, less than 5 minutes walk from my home, Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google (you can Google it) has been speaking  at an open lecture series (i.e. free and open to all) about where the world is headed. He is in a unique position to synthesis some of the big stuff going on in the world and offer us a Google-centric view on where the world is going right? Half right. He sees things and has access to information, ideas, people, governments, data and all that stuff but this wasn’t the ‘Google view’, this was a very personal view on the future of the digital world. If the lectures I attended as an undergraduate where as thought-provoking, engaging and authoritative, I would probably still be at university.
Eric Schmidt, Google, Lecture in Cambridge
The talk I attended tonight (I couldn’t make the 1st 2 due to some last minute and unavoidable child-care issues), was on, ‘The Future of Conflict, Combat and Intervention‘. I am sure video of the talk will be posted in due course and we will link but what was billed as a 90 minute lecture was in fact significantly shorter – about 30 minutes (and delivered with an autocue). It was a fascinating essay on the power of technology to change the world of conflict, considering the impact of technology on dictators and despots, politics, war, drones, artificial intelligence and the evolving role of humans and computers. Some pretty scary, pretty depressing stuff in some cases.
Some of the points that he raised in the talk (he also covered quick summaries of the previous ones):
  • The world has less wars now than in the past though they are more visible so might it might ‘feel’ that the world is worse today.
  • This isn’t a great time to be a dictator.
  • Today, leaders cannot commit atrocities and get away with it in the way they could in the past.
  • Means leaders will focus less on genocide and more on discrimination including restricting access to technology and content.
  • Warmongers will get better at marketing and mobilising tribes to promote their cause.
  • However, even if the state controls the majority of media, they can never control it entirely. Mobile phones, and microsd cards etc just can’t be controlled like Pravda.
  • The switch to a digital world makes it much harder to delete the evidence of atrocities.
  • Most worrying aspect of shift is complete removal of combat humans from field of conflict – drones, remote-control weapons, military weapons. This will become strategic priority for all nations in our lifetime.
  • The most effective way of combating drones is to attack digital control systems.
  • This is, in Eric’s view, likely to mean more conflicts in the world but they are likely to remain reduce the likelihood of all out war.
  •  Humans will still be very involved in war and combat as they need to teach machines what to do.
  • States, and the United Nations, will be forced to deal with cyber wars and cyber alliances to combat threats.
  • States with small military forces but technology expertise will become more powerful.
  • Open Source networks will become more important as a force for peace.
One line summary of earlier talks.
The Next 5 billion – Life in our connected age.
  • 5 billion people getting digital in a 3/4 years. What does this mean for medicine, women, media, entertainment? Society will see this as overwhelmingly positive even if we don’t know what will happen.
The Future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting.
  • Everyone has one from birth. No choice. People must fight to control them. [This really wasn’t a corporate gig…]
In summary, Eric finished with the remark, “Humans and computers will eventually do the things they are best at.”
  • Humans – judgement & leadership.
  • Computers – big processing problems &  remembering stuff.
  • Humans should invest relentlessly in education.
But it was all over in only 30 minutes, not 90. Disappointing?
Actually, not. The reverse, as he spent the rest of the time answering questions, in depth and off the cuff. A class act.
Questions from the floor (paraphrased, not comprehensive and my interpretation…).

When was the best time in history to be a brutal dictator?

  • Depends on your perspective but all dictators share a certain combination of psychotic characteristics – NPD, randomness etc. Dictators today are *probably* less likely to establish huge power bases as their psychosis will be recognised earlier thanks to technology by both their immediate supporters and wider population.

China – how can Google help democracy in China?

  • “We negotiated with China. We lost. I can’t put it more bluntly than that. Until China changes outlook to censorship, nothing more for us to do.”
Best gentle put down of the evening…
Is investing in technology for warfare unethical as it is directed at killing people?
  • “In the US, DARPA – Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency – does this. It invented the Internet.”
One of the last questions was from a serial lecture attendee and pessimist (Eric recognised him from the night before). He asked why, given some of the appalling potential scenarios that Eric outlines as ways the world can go, Eric was so optimistic about the world of the future.
  • Aside from a belief that the vast majority people in the world are, ‘good’. “In last 15 years, 2 billion people have moved from abject poverty to lower middle classes. This is best insurance against doomsday scenarios there can be.”

If he comes back, I will bring the children.