Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin rarely sit down together for a joint interview, but venture capitalist Vinod Khosla managed to get them both onstage for nearly an hour last week. It was not an occasion for small ideas, with the pair discussing everything from healthcare and search to machine learning and the need for companies to tackle massive problems. (A complete transcript is available, as is video.)
In contrast with most other tech companies, which choose to focus on a few core products, Google remains unafraid to spend resources on multiple avenues of research, even if that opens the firm up to accusations that its operations are spread too thin. During the interview, Page suggested that Google knows its limits, and that many of its diverse products eventually end up integrated in some fashion. “I think it sounds stupid if you have this big company, and you can only do five things,” he said. “I think it’s also not very good for the employees.”
Page believes that technology has the ability to radically change society’s current structure, as it’s reduced the work and resources necessary to provide housing, security, food and opportunity to vast swaths of the population: “The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people’s needs is just not true. I do think there’s a problem that we don’t recognize that.” And even if resources were distributed in a way that met the population’s needs, he added, people would still want to work, if only to feel needed and productive. His solution—a bit muddled in the telling—involves somehow recalibrating resources to more evenly serve society, while reducing the number of hours that individual employees work so that everybody can get a job, even a part-time one:
“Most people like working, but they’d also like to have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests. So that would be one way to deal with the problem, is if you had a coordinated way to just reduce the workweek. And then, if you add slightly less employment, you can adjust and people will still have jobs.”
It’s questionable, of course, whether society would accept the idea of chopping up full-time jobs into itty-bitty ones, just so more people would have something to do, but Page isn’t one for accepting the current paradigm. After all, this is a man who not only helped build the world’s most successful online search engine (and the advertising platform that pays for it), but whose company is now exploring everything from drones and autonomous cars to smartphones that can understand commands spoken in natural language.
Sergey Brin, who co-founded Google with Page, is likewise interested in “transformative” movements, whether the self-driving cars that he feels could radically alter how people move from Point A to B, or the high-altitude balloons that could serve the Internet to large segments of the developing world over the next few years. “We try to invest, at least, in the places where we see a good fit to our company,” he told the audience. “But that could be many, many bets, and only a few of them need to pay off.”
Brin agrees with page that intelligent machines will gradually replace more and more roles traditionally assigned to humans, and sees that as a good thing. “We do have lots of proof points that one can create intelligent things in the world because—all of us around,” he said. “Therefore, you should presume that someday, we will be able to make machines that can reason, think and do things better than we can.”
Some very smart people don’t agree with that rosy assessment of artificial intelligence. In a recent appearance on John Oliver’s HBO show, physicist Stephen Hawking suggested that a sufficiently intelligent robot could prove a “real danger in the not-too-distant future,” enacting plans beyond the will of its human creators. But at least our Robot Overlords might force us to work only 20 hours a week.
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Image: Khosla Ventures