HTLS 2021: Future tech will be ambient, immersive:, says Google’s Sundar Pichai - Hindustan Times
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HTLS 2021: Future tech will be ambient, immersive:, says Google’s Sundar Pichai

Dec 04, 2021 07:33 AM IST

The India-born executive particularly zeroed in on artificial intelligence, which he said “will have a profound and foundational impact on everything we do” as a factor that will drive the future of technologies such as augmented reality.

The future of technology will be ambient and immersive, said Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google’s parent Alphabet, envisioning a time when computing will adapt to more naturally interact with people, instead of merely being contained in rectangular boxes.

Pichai said the pandemic has hastened the adoption of technology, which has exposed some of the limitations of the present-day computing.(Reuters file photo)
Pichai said the pandemic has hastened the adoption of technology, which has exposed some of the limitations of the present-day computing.(Reuters file photo)

The India-born executive particularly zeroed in on artificial intelligence, which he said “will have a profound and foundational impact on everything we do” as a factor that will drive the future of technologies such as augmented reality.

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“Over time, rather than people adapting to computers and phones, computing will adapt more naturally to people, which means you will be able to interact more naturally, like the way you see things and speak. I think there’s a way computing will be more immersive, and ambient -- it’ll be there when you need it, not always as a black rectangle in front of you,” said Pichai, in conversation with HT’s R Sukumar. The conversation was recorded in November and aired on the fourth day of the hybrid Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Friday

Pichai was speaking on the topic of immersive computing and ideas such as the metaverse, a sort of virtual reality recently touted by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, when he announced the renaming of this company to Meta.

“Different companies will build different things in that future world,” he said, before adding Alphabet’s focus at present is on pushing the envelope on AI and developing on quantum computing.

Pichai said the pandemic has hastened the adoption of technology, which has exposed some of the limitations of the present-day computing. “[The pandemic] accelerated a few years of transition in a short timeframe,” he said.

The Chennai-born, IIT-educated Pichai said he was excited to see how Web3 (which includes cryptocurrencies, NFTs and decentralised applications) develops over time. “The web is a community, so at the end of the day, it is going to evolve, and what that evolution is or is not will depend on the people who are actually building the web and contributing to it. So you’ll have to wait for it to play out. [But] I always watch it with wonder, and I’m excited anytime the web is trying to evolve. As a company, we think about, how do we adapt? How can we contribute to it?”

A significant inflection point in technology, Pichai added, was the development of AI, which Alphabet has focussed on in terms of cutting-edge research as well as adoption in everyday products. “For example, as DeepMind (Alphabet’s AI research arm) showed with the Alpha Fold, we can accelerate drug discovery over time by better modelling protein structures…”

Further into the future, he added, will come areas like quantum computing, which “again opens up an entire new potential set of applications which classical computing cannot solve”.

On regulation

Regulation is an area that the world will need to focus on moving forward. “As tech has scaled up and is touching people’s lives in a deeper way, it’s natural that there needs to be rules of the road,” he said.

But, he added, the nature of a free and open internet must not be ignored in the clamour for regulation. “Through it all, it’s important to understand [that] we have this amazingly wonderful thing, which is a free and open internet, which helps connect the world in a global way and creates all the opportunities we see. I think that’s the balance with which we need to engage and work through.”

Google’s approach to regulation is “to be local, and engage in every country with the best interest of the country”, he said, while acknowledging the scope for friction in this area between how companies see their role and the obligations countries expect.

“At the end of the day, people will demand certain experiences, companies will want to participate in the global export economy, and governments will want sovereignty on issues that affect the lives of their citizens… There will be tension through a process like this but that is natural and I think over time, we have to work to find common answers,” he said.

Amid recent and new criticisms of engagement-based algorithms, which researchers and some tech whistleblowers say can create echo chambers of thought and open up scope for influence operations, Pichai spoke on proposals to regulate such algorithms.

“I think countries can pass legislation asking for more transparency and making sure we can respond to users. But I would be careful about the inherent dynamic nature of this [figuring out and fine-tuning algorithms] and how fast it’s evolving at an internet scale. Companies need the flexibility to be else able to adapt and move with certainty and make decisions to tackle problems like this as well,” he said.

Companies too need to remember their part, he said, speaking in the context of privacy, which he described as foundational for user rights. “All of us need to challenge ourselves, to provide people with the experiences they are seeking while enhancing privacy,” he said, giving an example of how Google attempts to deploy “federated learning” to teach the keyboard on smartphones to give typing suggestions without any raw data leaving a person’s device.

“I think it’s important users demand it. And I think the bar will keep going up. And so as companies, I think you have to dig deep to make sure you’re innovating on privacy preserving approaches,” he said.

Alphabet’s priorities

In addition to AI, according to Pichai, Alphabet is making significant efforts in the area of clean energy. The company has announced a full transition to carbon free energy by 2030, a plan he described as a moonshot. “There is no more urgent issue for us to solve together as humanity than climate change.”

The company is investing in new technologies like geothermal and over time, “we’ll be looking at emerging technologies, be it in nuclear or for carbon capture. We are evaluating everything… I’m deeply committed to, you know, deploying tools resources to help solve the problem.”

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