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Visit by Google chairman a plus for U

December 2, 2011


Eric Schmidt.

Google chairman Eric Schmidt spoke at the U November 30, 2011, about issues such as fostering innovation, cloud computing, access to technology, and control and security.

Photo: Bryan Koop

Eric Schmidt discusses the future of the high-tech economy

By Rick Moore

For a man poised to talk about the wonders and transformational power of technology, Eric Schmidt showed he has a good curveball to keep an audience off balance.

“Can I ask a question first? When did we lose control of our lives?” said the Google chairman to the crowd of about 250 techies and assorted guests at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “When did it get to the point where you had to turn on your mobile device as you woke up and you had to check your email as you went to sleep? Now, come on. Is there anybody in the room who does not have this problem?

“This is the new addiction. … Don’t you remember the time when you could actually have some peace of mind? When people weren’t constantly texting you … and you lived in the quietude of non-knowledge?”

That snapshot of American life, circa 2011, drew hearty laughter, and then Schmidt proceeded with his talk—which took the form of a Q&A session with Steve Kelley, director of the U’s Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy—on the future of the high-tech economy.

Googling innovation

Schmidt’s visit to campus wasn’t completely random. The University of Minnesota is one of the first and leading adopters of Google applications in higher education, and there are currently nearly 90,000 U of M Google email account users.

He pointed out that the type of innovation that Google prizes is already inherent at the U.

“How does the University maintain innovation? Frankly, it’s because of the students and the graduate students,” Schmidt said. “Google exists because of the research universities of America, and we source these remarkably brilliant young men and women that you all produce. It’s the proudest thing, I think, that we do in America.”

A new kind of textbook

When asked about access to technology and the potential for further disparity between the haves and the have-nots, Schmidt pointed out that there are 4 billion mobile phones in the world, and smartphones will continue to proliferate around the planet. Which sets up an interesting paradox. “People who do not have running water will have a mobile phone now and a smart phone,” he said. “If you’re a person who has no access to textbooks [and no] television … and one of these phones shows up, [then you] have all the world’s information and all the world’s entertainment. … That’s a big day.”

Schmidt also talked about the role technology plays, or can play, in advancing a democracy and maintaining checks and balances.

“I’ve come to a view that we have a physical system—the world that we all understand, the governments and countries and so forth—and we have another system, which is this virtual system,” he said. And “each will keep each other in check.”

Destructive people, for example, will find it hard to escape scrutiny because of all the data and tracking mechanisms in the online world. Similarly, it will be easier for police to detect this behavior online and punish those responsible.

“The two systems are somewhat at odds, but they ultimately make each other better,” Schmidt said, “and as a metaphor, that’s a pretty good predictor of the next 10 years.”

To hear Schmidt’s entire talk, including his thoughts and opinions on cloud computing, control and security, and the ethics of pushing out new technology, visit livestream and click on “The future of the high-tech economy.”

This article originally appeared in early December, 2011.

Tags: Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Related Links

View Eric Schmidt's talk at the U of M