Dec 12, 2018 - Technology

Google CEO: Big Tech scrutiny is "here to stay"

Google CEO Sundar Pichai at House Judiciary Committee hearing

Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The sudden scrutiny and skepticism hitting Google and other Big Tech companies is "here to stay," Google CEO Sundar Pichai told Axios Tuesday after he testified for more than three hours on Capitol Hill.

Why it matters: Pichai has been the least public of the top tech CEOs, and he and Google are beginning an effort to engage more consistently and directly with policymakers

“Tech has a lot of impact and a lot of consequences. And so, I think it’s rightful to be more reflective of how technology is developed. And I think the stakes are higher, the technology is getting more powerful, with the technologies like AI coming up, too. So, I think it’s here to stay, and it’s a good thing, right? I think you want to be thoughtful about how you develop powerful technologies. And I think it’s important that more people than engineers are able to weigh in on these things.”
— Google CEO Sundar Pichai

Like Apple CEO Tim Cook in an "Axios on HBO" interview, Pichai made it clear that tech accepts that new regulation is inevitable and will now try to work with Washington to get the balance right.

Pichai spoke with Axios after lawmakers grilled him on perceived search bias and consumer data abuses. In the interview, Pichai said he recognized that more conversations need to happen between Mountain View and Washington. “There needs to be deeper, different engagement than what happens today,” he said.

  • Pichai said that he views these sorts of cultural backlashes as moving in cycles, so Big Tech’s troubles may abate one day. Meanwhile, he said he hopes that “we don’t lose that sense of optimism we have about technology.”
  • “But I think a broader scrutiny of technology at a high level, I think, is actually important,” he said. “I personally have always felt so.”

Pichai reiterated Google’s support for “thoughtful” privacy regulation and said the company is exploring instances in which certain user settings would default away from collecting the data that fuels the company’s ad-targeting machine. Instead, consumers would have to opt in to that data collection in some instances.

  • “I think privacy is an area where you have constantly evolving user expectations,” he said. “I think, as a company, we have grown a lot. … I think people may legitimately have questions saying, ‘I do want a different construct.’”
  • He declined to say which default settings the company might change. (He said the team might say to him: "Sundar, that was a stupid idea.") But he said that location data is one area it is working to simplify settings for users. “We understand location is in the fabric of everything,” he said.
  • The catch: Google’s data trove is what makes its tools so useful for consumers. Location data, for instance, is how Google knows what language to translate when you travel to another country. When Google gets it wrong, “people are very upset at us,” he said. “We are trying to respond to user needs.”

Concerns about AI's power and potentially negative consequences are legitimate, he said. Still, the development of powerful technologies such as AI is inevitable, and it’s essential to keep up with the progress being made in these areas by bad actors.

  • For example, he said, the only way to thwart fake videos is to develop technology advanced enough to sniff them out. “The worst thing you can do is to stop progress on AI [while] someone else is making progress on manipulation of AI,” he said.

What's next: He also pointed to the important role large tech companies now play in the R&D of emerging technology, particularly AI and quantum computing, as federal spending falls.

  • When asked if Google would be broken up, he cited investment in emerging technologies as a benefit of bigness. “There are some advantages of big companies, which is we do invest for the long term in foundational technologies,” he said.

Go deeper: Slowing economy could increase pressure on Big Tech

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