Davos 2017: Google’s Sergey Brin Talks AI and Fourth Industrial Revolution

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Sergey Brin Davos WEF

Artificial intelligence is roiling the very infrastructure of our society and as business leaders and politicians convened at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, the potential of AI as an economic jumpstarted and corporate strategy is a crucial topic.

In a far-ranging fireside chat at WEF—his first appearance in eight years—Sergey Brin, Google co-founder and Alphabet president, began by saying, “First of all, let me just tell all of you that you should doubt my answers.”

That set the tone for a candid conversation between Brin and Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, about AI, automation, leadership, entrepreneurship and work, as well as Schwab’s theory of The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which he describes as:

The First Industrial Revolution used steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”

Brin agreed that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is within our control as long as we collaborate (as companies, governments, academics) across geographies, sectors and disciplines going forward.

He admitted his initial skepticism toward AI and shared his surprise at the pace of its advancements. “I didn’t pay attention to it at all, to be perfectly honest,” he said in a WEF session “Having been trained as a computer scientist in the 90s, everybody knew that AI didn’t work. People tried it, they tried neural nets and none of it worked.”

That skepticism has been replaced by a corporate embrace of deep neural network technology through Google Brain, which touches almost all of the behemoth’s products from translation, to photography and advertising.

Brin co-founded Google with Stanford classmate Larry Page in 1998 and reverberations from their founding motto, “Don’t be evil,” resonated as he praised Silicon Valley’s pursuit of innovation since his last visit to the WEF. And he spoke briefly of scaling back his Google[x] moonshots and on a personal note, of perhaps finishing his Ph.D.

Of course, Alphabet is among the world’s largest spenders on AI. “This revolution has been very profound and definitely surprised me even though I was right in there and could throw paper clips at them,” noted Brin.

Technology’s evolution is “inherently chaotic,” he added, and leads to changes in society at large that require debate. “These are deep and powerful philosophical questions but I don’t know that we’re equipped to answer them.”

Automation will enable people to spend their time differently. “Some of the more mundane tasks are alleviated through technology and people will find more and more creative and meaningful ways to spend their time,” he added. “It’s an incredible time and it’s very hard to forecast what these things can do. We don’t really know the limits.”

“Not having been to Davos in eight years, I’m even confused in a good way, because there are all these business executives and CEOs and everybody wondering how are people going to find purpose and what about all these refugees, what about income inequality.”

Brin said of his company’s core values: “For whatever weird reason, maybe it’s because we are San Francisco hippies, Google has always had a little bit of that social responsibility view.”

“I certainly had no dreams of economic success,” he added. “I would encourage young folks to take chances and pursue their dreams.”

Commenting on his hiatus from attending the World Economic Forum, Brin quipped, “I almost feel like we’re at Burning Man, but we’re all wearing clothes. Incredibly, I’m here at Davos and I feel like the Luddite in the room.”

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