It didn’t take long for me to realise that I had reached Googleland. Exactly two minutes after arriving in Mountain View, Northern California, one of the many boom towns that make up Silicon Valley, I spotted my first driverless car. It was a little white pod with dashes of bright colour on its side, making its way along the highway during the evening rush hour, ignored by blasé commuters.
I would see many more on my three-day trip, one of the more visible signs of the next stage of the great tech revolution being masterminded from California. The roads in the Valley may be wide, but they are chock-a-block with (usually Japanese) cars, company buses and bikes; the economy is booming, driven by the remarkable success of America’s high-tech giants. My Uber driver, a trainee chef, tells me that his one-bedroom flat costs him $2,000 (Dh7,346) in rent a month, and house prices are hopelessly out of control.
Everything at the Google headquarters, home of the search engine, YouTube, Android and much more, is exactly the way you would expect it to be. A sprawling network of leafy low-rise offices on the edge of the California wilderness, it looks and feels more like a university campus than the offices of one of the world’s most powerful corporations. The complex is so large that one needs a map to find one’s way around; the ultra casually dressed hyper-educated young staff hail from all over the world.
Cash-rich tech firms engaged in a global war for talent treat their employees better than well. There are swimming pools with wave machines, ping pong tables and climbing walls; places for staff to play video games or take a quick nap, and even a garage where employees are encouraged to build physical objects, engage in woodwork or sow as a way of cultivating their creativity.
Playing with 3D printers – devices that print three-dimensional plastic objects of any shape or size from a digital file – is a common pursuit; one engineer devotes his free time to creating ultra-low-cost prosthetic devices that he ships to his native Vietnam.
Trying to replicate such trusting working conditions at a widget sales office in Slough would end in anarchy, and I doubt that the computer desk attached to a treadmill that I spotted in one corner would have many takers in most UK offices. But at Google, which employs thousands of brilliant, self-motivated PhD mathematicians and developers, it works, helping to forge a culture of innovation and responsibility as well as an unusual esprit de corps.
Perhaps the greatest perk of all – apart from, for sun-starved Britons, the array of sun-loungers dotted around the campus – is the endless supply of free food and non-alcoholic drinks, served in myriad, varied restaurants. The problem with success of this kind is that it could breed complacency and decadence: when you are living this well, generating $20.2 billion in revenues and $5.1 billion in pre-tax profits, as Google did in the first quarter alone, largely thanks to an ever-growing share of global advertising, it’s easy to rest on one’s laurels, to fritter cash on irrelevant projects, to lose focus.
Hubris could also set in. There have already been many damaging clashes with politicians and regulators; the company now has seven products that are used by more than one billion people at least once a month, generating all sorts of concerns over privacy, tax and competition.
Google’s co-founders (below) have their eyes set firmly on a future of driverless cars and personalised AI assistant service.
The man charged with ensuring that the firm stays on track is Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive. A sprightly, slightly unassuming 43-year old from Southern India, he is one of the Valley’s hottest stars; he has been in the role for almost a year. He reports to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founders who now run Alphabet, the overall holding company that also invests in ventures such as glucose-sensing contact lenses, longevity research and automated vehicles.
Sundar is living the American Dream. When, in the 1990s, he won a scholarship to Stanford, the world’s top tech university in California, his one-way ticket from India cost more than his father’s annual salary. Dressed in a black shirt and jeans, his accent part-Indian and part-American, his mission is clear: he wants people to stop thinking about Google primarily as a means of searching for publicly available information but as a full-on assistant, helping people to live their lives in all sorts of ways.
In addition to further refining and advancing his core products, he is targeting the home and the car as Google’s next frontiers. Crucially, he wants to liberate us from having to rely on computers and phones when interacting with his company. He would like us to be able to talk to our house or car, instructing Google to order some takeaway, asking it what the temperature will be in Ibiza next week, requesting an item be added to the family diary or shopping list and then be reminded that it’s time for that medical appointment.
The world is only just getting used to the smartphone revolution, but the bespectacled Pichai is already thinking post-mobile. ‘Today, we pull out a black rectangular piece of something,’ says Sundar. ‘It’s much better than what’s been before, but it’s still a physical device with which we interact.’ But as we move away from this, ‘over time, the experience will become much more intuitive, much more natural’.
Teaching computers to understand casual, contextual conversation in every language and accent is key to this quest to normalise our interactions with computers and to place Google even more squarely at the centre of our lives. Achieving this would require solving complex computational problems, and Google is investing vast amounts in machine learning – a form of artificial intelligence (AI). This is central to the company’s long-term future; it permeates everything it now does.
No longer is it enough to program machines with all the answers, or to rely on traditional statistical analysis to allow them to work out what’s what. Instead, the firm now relies on techniques such as neural networks that allow computers to teach themselves by sifting through massive amounts of data, learning from patterns, regularities and interconnections. And the potential is massive, Sundar believes.
‘We’ve been making very meaningful progress in machine learning and AI,’ he emphasises. ‘The rate has reached an inflection point.’
To some, Google’s strategy will seem terrifying: won’t AI end up automating all jobs, and, in extremis, lead to a Terminator-style dystopia where machines take control?
The Google boss believes that the benefits of harnessing AI will be much greater than the costs, and that the changes will take decades, allowing societies to adapt. New professions will continue to be created, replacing jobs that are automated. He does think, however, that over time society will come up with a new social contract to deal with the changes.
‘Technology is always disruptive,’ he says. ‘But it’s a force for making people’s lives better. It’s also an incredibly democratising force over time.’
AI will be transformative he believes, and not just in his company’s own area. Take medicine. Sundar recounts that ‘just in the last months, we’ve seen some young people in Google diagnosed with cancer. It’s shocking to see. I look at that and I think: “Can machine learning and AI make progress on these things?” In my mind, the answer is yes. We are in such early stages. It’s imperative that we bring this to the world.’ He also believes that his assistant project and the progress of AI will make it easier to protect privacy, another controversial area for the tech industry.
‘Today’s software is difficult,’ says Sundar. ‘You want to give users lots of privacy controls, but then it becomes clunky and unstable. You still need to go to a settings page. It needs to be much more intuitive.’
He foresees a day when users will simply speak to a device to change their privacy settings, and his digital assistant will behave more and more like human beings, modifying how much personal information is divulged depending on the context, on whether one is at work or at home, alone or in company.
But while the future seen from Mountain View is extraordinarily exciting, plenty of entrepreneurs from around the world would love to make it their own. How much does he worry about competition and the possibility that upstart firms could eventually displace Google?
‘A lot,’ he says. ‘It never feels for a moment that we are a large successful company. That’s not what it feels like. I feel that every year you need to earn your next year’s success.’
The most obvious way to achieve this is to try and keep true to its start-up roots. ‘I awake everyday and say: How do [we make sure our] people feel that they are a small company, scrappy, frugal, disciplined?”
‘In technology, you often solve problems because you have constraints, because you don’t have money. So you think of a different way. Technology has always been reshaped by small companies with an ability to move fast and do things differently.’
In the face of intense competition, Google sticks to its start-up roots, encouraging bottom-up ideas by staff.
The key is to nurture bottom-up initiatives. Google allows its staff to dedicate 20 per cent of their time to interesting projects. That’s how it invented Cardboard, a cheap way of enjoying virtual reality. One of its core products, the Android OS that now powers so many devices is open source.
Unlike Apple’s rival system, anybody can use it. This has helped make it hugely successful but is also reducing the barriers to entry for competitors.
‘All the work we have done on Android makes it even easier for [a competitor] to create something,’ says Sundar. ‘Amazon has just announced two new phones, built on Android.’
It is not surprising, therefore, that he disagrees with Brussels’ competition commissioners, who worry his firm has too much market power. One of their arguments is that Google pre-installs too many apps on its devices and that this makes it hard for competing app makers to break in.
The Google boss argues that he is simply ensuring that devices are ready to use and come fully loaded with essential tools, such as maps. ‘We think about what are the services that are used by a lot of people, and we put them in. We then give users the choice to do whatever else they want. When you press factory reset on that phone, it needs to work.’
Google’s vast size has downsides – both cultural and political – but it also allows it to spend billions on projects that have a very long term and uncertain payoff. ‘Because we are a large company, we can think for the very long term,’ says Sundar. ‘We take on projects without knowing the business model.’
Many of the company’s most exciting projects fall into this category. Its new photo app is able to recognise pictures: one can search for beaches, for example, and all the relevant holiday snaps pop up. It is also possible to search for weddings or birthdays, and the app can easily be trained to recognise people, allowing parents to instantly find all their pictures of their children. The implications are revolutionary, and will one day extend to video and films. Search is no longer bound to text.
Take Google Translate. The app, using a phone’s camera, now reads Russian or Mandarin and instantly translates the characters into English. There is no immediate monetisation mechanism for any of these projects, but they all form part of the company’s mission to apply machine learning and AI to as many problems as possible.
Refreshingly, the Google chief is careful not to express a view on Brexit. ‘We are very committed to both the UK and the EU,’ he insists. ‘We respect the outcome of the democratic process.’
But Sundar remains attached to the idea of a single digital market, which doesn’t currently exist in any meaningful way, but which has been criticised in Britain as a threat to its creative industries. ‘We always find it hard to deal with country by country laws and regulations. That complexity hurts our ability to engage in a deeper way, to invest more in the EU. A more unified set of rules helps economically.’
Yet, what he describes as fragmentation – others would see it more positively as democracy or institutional competition – is surmountable for big firms like his. ‘We can hire more people to deal with more complex governance structures,’ he says. ‘It’s harder for smaller companies trying to innovate.’
As to the clashes his company keeps having with exchequers across Europe, Sundar sees them as an ‘international tax allocation issue. We pay consistently with the OECD tax rate globally.’ The problem is that current tax laws mean that companies tend to pay most of their taxes in the countries in which they are headquartered, which creates tensions.
‘The way we all get to a better outcome is through an evolution of the global tax structures’ by governments working together to modify the rules, he argues. In the meantime, he says he is hiring more engineers in Britain. ‘That is a long-term way for us to pay more in tax in [the UK].’
Sundar is most cautious when it comes to US politics, and refuses to be drawn into criticising Donald Trump. ‘We take very, very strong positions on values,’ he says. ‘We strive to be a very inclusive company. On issues such as inclusion, immigration reform and equal rights, we take strong positions – but on issues, not candidates.’
The company is also very green: the air conditioning is kept deliberately mild and the quid pro quo to all the free food is that staff are asked to recycle everything ferociously. There are Tesla electric saloons in all the car parks, as well as lots of Google-coloured bikes, complete with an idiosyncratic braking system, which requires back-pedalling to avoid crashing into passing pedestrians.
In addition to his attempt at turning Google into an assistant service, creating a personalised service for every human being, the company is continuing to take on TV companies. Its YouTube unit is now colonising the living room, grabbing ever more market share and delivering a remarkably engaged audience for advertisers. The firm has started to commission its first original content from its home-grown YouTube superstars, some of whom are better known to youngsters than Hollywood names, and launched a subscription service.
Not all Google products, like Glass, succeed. But most become huge, such as Cardboard, a cheap way to enjoy virtual reality.
Its live broadcasts are taking off. But not everything Google does pays off: its Glass product – a transparent, wearable screen that looked like a digital mask – bombed. The competition is intensifying on all fronts, including from increasingly powerful players such as Facebook. But only a fool would bet against Sundar Pichai, his team of super-bright lieutenants and their armies of maths geniuses. The revolution is on track, it will keep changing the way we live, and it will be orchestrated, at least in part, from a giant suburban business park in Silicon Valley.