In his annual Founders’ Letter, the Alphabet president stressed the need for “thoughtfulness and responsibility” in the way we approach new technology.
“We’re in an era of great inspiration and possibility,” Brin wrote, “but with this opportunity comes the need for tremendous thoughtfulness and responsibility as technology is deeply and irrevocably interwoven into our societies.” Brin is giving “serious thought” to everything from “the fears of sci-fi style sentience” to immediate worries like the safety and efficacy of self-driving vehicles.
And there are no small number of things to consider. Brin highlighted the raw power at mankind’s disposal, contrasting the Pentium II processors, which made up Google’s original backbone, to quantum computers now in development that would offer — get ready — “a 10,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000x speedup” to today’s fastest hardware.
That almost inconceivable increase in computing power may have massive ramifications for gaming and cryptocurrency, but Brin’s foremost interest is in the application of machine learning straight out of Westworld. He said, “the profound revolution in machine learning” is both “made possible by these increasingly powerful processors” and the “major impetus for developing them further.”
According to Brin, neural networks have gone from “a forgotten footnote in computer science” to “the most significant development in computing in my lifetime.” He calls it a “technology renaissance” and makes a compelling case for such a dramatic statement.
Still, no great advancement comes without a host of concerns. While new forms of A.I. begin to take the proverbial — and literal — driver’s seat, there are questions. “How will they affect employment across different sectors,” Brin asked. “How can we understand what they are doing under the hood? What about measures of fairness? How might they manipulate people? Are they safe?”
Brin concluded his letter by addressing Alphabet’s role in this evolving silicon world. “Technology companies have historically been wide- eyed and idealistic about the opportunities that their innovations create,” he said. “And for the overwhelming part, the arc of history shows that these advances, including the Internet and mobile devices, have created opportunities and dramatically improved the quality of life for billions of people.”
“However, there are very legitimate and pertinent issues being raised, across the globe, about the implications and impacts of these advances,” and Brin affirmed that “this is an important discussion to have.” He is “optimistic” about using all of this bleeding-edge tech to better the world but ended his letter with a warning that “we are on a path that we must tread with deep responsibility, care, and humility.”