MOBILE WORLD CONGRESS – In his keynote, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said the sci-fi future of robots and self-driving cars is closer than we think. But first we have a responsibility to offset a digital divide, and with 2bn people already online, the technology world has a moral responsibility to connect the remaining 5bn people.
“This year, the world’s population reached 7bn people, but there are only 2bn online” Schmidt said. “One billion people in the world have smartphones but there are hundreds of millions who have never played Angry Birds. For every person online there are two that are not. We need to be realists when talking about the power of technology. I’m not being a defeatist, every revolution begins with a small group of people – imagine 5bn more people online!”
Schmidt told assembled developers, telecoms industry people and device manufacturers that the world is facing a stark digital divide and painted a picture of a three-tiered world.
Hitchhiker’s guide to the limits of science
“The internet has brought huge advantages in terms of democracy and education. Technology offers only what the limits of science can deliver and what society deems ethical.”
He said we are beginning to see science fiction becoming reality, with fibre speeds of 300Mbps a common connection speed within a few years. He also confessed his favourite book is Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
“Moore’s Law that computing doubles every two years is holding true and the cost of storage is halving every two months, with unlimited speed and processing power a reality. Tiny sensors will exist in everything, from clothes to furniture and infrastructure. By 2020, every city will have fibre.
“Think about it, the ability to translate, interactive maps, these things all happened faster than scientists predicted. The people who predicted holograms and self-driving cars will happen were absolutely right,” he said, predicting in the future people will be able to be in two or three places at once by dispatching robots to meetings in their place, for example, and will be able to step into conversations at any point.
In terms of self-driving cars, Schmidt said: “Driverless cars are closer than you think. In the US in the last five years, 375,000 people lost their lives. Google’s driverless cars have already driven 200,000 miles and the states of Nevada and Florida are making laws to facilitate driverless cars. Ninety-three per cent of car accidents are down to human error.”
He also said the impact of big data must not be underestimated. “Very soon, governments will see and predict crises faster than they did the last one.”
He said the world that is emerging has been created by a group of people such as Steve Jobs who saw that technology can make a massive change in human lives. This is the first group that has access to the best technologies and, as such, the wealth.
“The ultimate achievement will be when technology actually disappears and becomes a part of every day life. Instead of worrying about cables and where content is stored it’ll just be there, like electricity seems to have just always been there.”
The next group – a middle class – Schmidt terms the ‘connected contributors’, whose worlds of opportunity have been opened up through technologies like computers and broadband. He predicted telepresence technologies that will put people via broadband in places like the Congo during an eclipse or at the heart of real crises.
He said people will be able to create businesses via the cloud and leverage the cloud to design products like a clothing line, have it manufactured and be open for business within 24 hours.
“Coding is more than just about writing programmes,” he said, pointing to how tools created in the last decade have been used by dissidents and activists all over the world. “Developers are engineers of human freedom,” he said, pointing to the role of social media during the Arab Spring.
A network of global consciousness
“I’ve always believed that the web is more than just a network of machines, it’s a network of minds developing into a global consciousness. Remember how people donated almost immediately when the Japanese earthquake struck, think about the Arab Spring. The web now unites us in sentiment and action.
“But the aspiring majority are still a minority. There’s another future that awaits the remaining 5bn people – the web is still a scarce resource. There are pockets of activity, digital oases, but for many there are no sensors, not even copper wires in the ground.
“The next decade will bring improvements to digital infrastructure and new data centres are being opened in southeast Asia and Turkey. Fibre will be widespread and WDM technology will boost fibre capacity.
“But in some parts of the world, it is not enough,” he said, calling on the Mobile World Congress to make the smartphone revolution universal.
“In the coming years we will see phones that today cost US$400 come down to US$20, we intend to see Android sit in every pocket.
“It is strategic for Google because we know that mobile will change lives. Think about smartphones loaded with a basic medical diagnostic tool – phones can take pictures search nearby medical facilities for answers.”
Schmidt said he was aware of the limitations so far of bringing the internet to the farthest corners of the world but said phones can use mesh networks to beam information from device to device. “Connectivity changes lives, allowing people to run businesses, schools or news outlets from their homes.”
He said that far-flung communities with even a solar server can create mesh networks that become a digital watering hole for the community.
He said this connectivity is crucial. “Most importantly, internet access will define our relationships with the world. In times of war and suffering, it is becoming impossible to ignore the voices that call out for help. (President of Syria Bashar) al-Assad’s brutality is there today for all to see. Everyone’s knowledge becomes everyone else’s.
“With information comes power and choice. Smarter and resourceful people will demand a greater deal.
“This is why I do what I do. We will still have elites, but there won’t any longer be a monopoly on opportunity.
“The weak will be made strong and those with nothing will have something.”
Schmidt said it is incumbent on technology creators and enablers to help the world to avoid a digital caste system. “We are not all born into families with laptops and smartphones. In every person I believe there is a company waiting to break out. Technology empowers by its very nature.
“We all started this revolution,” he said. “All of us here are given the opportunities, talents and passion to change the world.
“Let us work as developers and entrepreneurs to build a world where everyone is connected and enjoy a great future for all,” Schmidt said.
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