CeBIT 2012 Opening Ceremony

To say that technology will be a defining force in shaping the future of the world is so obvious, it hardly bears mentioning. Trying to predict how that future will unfold and what technology’s impact will be, however, is an exercise that allows much less certainty. That’s exactly the challenge undertaken by “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business,” the now year-old book written by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas Jared Cohen.

Schmidt and Cohen continued their whirlwind global book tour this week stopping by the Oasis: The Monty Summit technology conference in Santa Monica for a keynote address on the state of technology. A lot has transpired in the year since the book went to press. The Arab Spring and the Edward Snowden-led NSA leaks have both demonstrated technology’s power to drive change, but also the unexpected consequences that can unfold.

“I think we’ve seen the unpredictability of political change due to technology,” Schmidt said during the interview conducted by Bloomberg TV’s Emily Chang. He went on to add, “It’s very easy to unseat an autocrat, but what next? Revolutions are easy to start, but hard to finish.” According to Cohen, “There’s a limit to technological optimism – the gun still speaks. That may not be a good thing, but it’s true.”

According to Schmidt, the reaction to technology-driven revolution varies widely based on the society in which it’s occurring. In countries without societal tolerance, education, and rule of law, technology can just as easily be used for evil. For example, when the Egyptian government turned off the country’s internet in an attempt to control the flow of information, the move backfired and people switched sides.

A similar scenario is emerging in China, according to Schmidt and Cohen, where as many as 100 million currently disconnected citizens – mostly in rural areas – are going to be coming online in the next decade. These are the people who have benefited the least from China’s last half-century of economic mobility, according to Cohen, meaning they’re the most angry and least willing to put up with corruption and authoritarianism.

“People only care about corruption in China if the economy isn’t growing 7 percent per year,” Schmidt says. “And I think we can all agree that it can’t grow at that rate forever. Then what are they going to do?” Cohen adds, “You can’t monitor and censor all 100 million new parallel conversations.”

Shifting closer to home, Chang asked Schmidt to comment on the state of Google’s relationship with the NSA in light of recent surveillance revelations. “What relationship?” he says, mockingly. “They didn’t knock, they didn’t call, they didn’t send a letter, they just visited.” Addressing the possibility that Google’s video chats may have been intercepted and monitored similar to those on Yahoo’s platform, Schmidt said only, “We’ll have to look forward to more disclosures on that subject.”

Continuing the discussion around the NSA leaks, both Schmidt and Cohen said that they’re in favor or more transparency but fear an environment in which whistleblowers are the ones making decisions as to what information gets leaked. While neither has a solution to offer, the men suggested that the media, private industry, and the government must all work together to develop a system by which whistleblowers are enabled but data leakage is contained.

“I’m really concerned about the copycat effect and the celebrity effect,” Cohen said. The next whistleblowers may have different levels of discretion and different motivations, he adds.

Schmidt and Cohen also looked into their crystal ball to predict which areas of technology would have the most impact in the coming years. Cohen’s answer was that the growth in mobile adoption, which in turn brings internet access to entirely new populations would have a profound impact on education, particularly for women.

Schmidt, on the other hand, points to advances in artificial intelligence and the use of automation in our everyday lives as an area of profound impact.

“Robots will become omnipresent in our lives in a good way,” he says. “Technology is evolving from asking a question to making a relevant recommendation. It will figure out things you care about and make recommendations. That’s possible with today’s technology.”

Of course Google has been actively acquiring robotics and home automation companies over the last year, including blockbuster deals to absorb Nest Labs, the $3.2 billion maker of smart thermostats and smoke detectors, Deepmind, the $500 million artificial intelligence company, and Boston Dynamics the company known for developing robotics and software for human simulation (for an undisclosed sum).

Add in Android, the company’s dominant mobile platform, its fledgling wearables division led by Google Glass, and its driverless car program and Google seems better positioned than anyone to lead us into an automated future. Asked what he sees Google “being” in 10 years, Schmidt responded, “[our goal is to see that] improvement in AI make things more efficient and enjoyable.”

Whether consumers, regulators, and privacy watchdogs will view this as positively as Schmidt does is another matter entirely.

Finally, Schmidt and Cohen touched on the future potential for technology to extend lifespans and push the current boundaries of mortality. Google has reportedly invested “hundreds of millions of dollars” into Calico, a clandestine anti-aging healthcare startup, but Schmidt declined to discuss details of the work taking place there. He did, however, discuss a future preventative medicine scenario in which we might all wear sensors that conduct real-time, non-invasive health monitoring, such as for example high resolution cameras that monitor changes in our skin that can be indicative of the onset of disease or other health changes.

It’s not everyday that you get to hear two of the most well-informed technologists of our time prognosticate on where the future might lead us. In Schmidt and Cohen’s telling, that future will be one in which technology increases the pace of political change, information is more readily available, and health is a matter of prevention rather than repair.

It’s a compelling and occasionally idealistic view. But as I said at the outset, predicting the future is an exercise that by definition does not allow for much certainty.

[Image via ThinkStock]