Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt imagines a day when struggling to remember someone’s name at a party will be a thing of the past.
In a wide-ranging talk on the future of technology in our lives and politics at the Economic Club of Chicago Thursday morning, Schmidt said Google Glasses may one day whisper that name in a wearer’s ear.
Schmidt, 58, is swinging through Chicago this week on a promotional tour for his new book, “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business,” which he co-wrote with Jared Cohen, 31, a former State Department official and director of Google Ideas, the company’s think tank.
Their talk — an interview conducted by Chicago investor J.B. Pritzker — brought Cohen and Schmidt together again after the pair spent more than 25 countries culling research for the book, which focuses on the possible aftershocks of an estimated 5 billion more people joining the Internet in the next five to 10 years, mostly in the developing world.
Schmidt also predicted that Google’s car will drive itself in years instead of decades in the future. And that Google’s search engine would one day predict what a user intended to query but didn’t.
“We have a product we’re working on now, which attempts to answer interesting questions,” Schmidt said. “It starts by trying to figure out: Where is your home? And where is your work? And on its own, it figures out how long it takes you to get from home to work, and then it tells you if you’re late.”
Pritzker began with a question about Schmidt and Cohen’s controversial trip to North Korea in January.
The airline they took from Beijing to Pyongyang “is the least safe and lowest rated airline in the world,” Schmidt said. “The country is very, very poor. It has some legacy of its rich past. The buildings are very pretty. But there’s no heat. There’s no power. So you’re frigid.”
Schmidt said there are more than 1 million cell phones in North Korea — all as capable as American phones, but the government won’t turn on the Internet. Schmidt and Cohen’s travel party was forced to leave their cell phones in Beijing.
“I predicted that after two days Eric’s thumbs would start twitching,” Cohen joked.
Schmidt described North Korea as “very, very bizarre.” Their visit, Cohen said, was all artifice, a combination of a Broadway play and the movie “The Truman Show.” Once the tourists leave, the subway stops going back and forth between two stops, for instance. The Java programmers they met in a computer lab weren’t programming at all, and it was unclear if they could.
“The thing that was most disturbing is that of all of the places I’ve been — and I’ve been to East Germany and was in Russia as it fell — we would talk to the people (in those places) and we would get a sense of doubt,” Schmidt said. “They kind of knew they were in an irrational system that made no sense, and the people were jokers. Here I had no sense of that. It’s one of those things, if 22 million people can be that sheepish or that frightened, until that problem is solved, we’re not going to make any progress with North Korea.”
Both Schmidt and Cohen see the free flow of information online as an empowering and democratic tool. Still, North Korea could turn on the Internet, only to use it as a massive wiretap. And even worse, terrorists or enemies could use it as a cyber-weapon.
“How do you know the Chinese are not wandering around your company right now, in your internal e-mail?” Schmidt asked. “We were surprised they were inside of Google, and we’ve since increased our defenses a great deal.”
Cohen said America is constructing two foreign policies, one for cyberspace and one for the physical world. The relationship between China and the United States in the physical world is complex and multifaceted. In cyberspace, it looks as adversarial as America’s relationship with Iran, he said.
“But at what point does an attack from China in cyberspace become so serious and so severe and inflict such consequences that it requires a physical world response?” Cohen asked. “We treat these two domains as separate, but eventually they become intertwined.”
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