Live from TED2014

Computing is still too clunky: Charlie Rose and Larry Page in conversation

(L-R) Charlie Rose and Larry Page. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

(L-R) Charlie Rose and Larry Page. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

The illustrious questioner Charlie Rose and Google cofounder and CEO Larry Page take their seats on the TED stage for a Q&A during Session 6: Wired. They talk about Page’s latest projects, Snowden’s appearance and the underlying ethos that powers Page’s work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

Charlie Rose: Where is Google, and where is it going?

Larry Page: The mission that we defined a long time ago was to organize the world’s information and make it usable and accessible. Now people always ask me: Is that still what you’re doing? And I’m not quite sure. But search really is such a deep thing for us. To really understand what you want, to really understand the world’s information — we’re still very much at the early stages of that. We’ve been doing this for 15 years already, but it’s not at all done.

When it’s done, how will it be?

Computing’s kind of a mess. Your computer doesn’t know where you are, what you know, what you’re doing. We’re trying to make devices work, to understand your context and what you might need. We’re just starting to work on Android Wear, for example. Having computing understand you — we haven’t done that yet. It’s still very clunky.

When you look at what Google is doing, where does DeepMind fit?

DeepMind is a UK company we just acquired. Voice recognition is important. Right now even state-of-the-art speech recognition is not very good. It doesn’t understand you. So we ran machine learning on YouTube, and DeepMind discovered cats on its own. DeepMind started playing video games and learning automatically. The same program can play all these games [like Battlezone, Pong, Demon Attack] with superhuman performance. Imagine if this kind of intelligence were thrown at your schedule, your information needs. That’s what I’m excited about.

Where are we with artificial intelligence?

We’re seeing a lot of work going on that crosses computer science and neuroscience, and that’s very exciting.

People who know you well say, “Larry wants to change the world, and he thinks tech will lead the way.” This means people need access to the Internet.

We’ve started Project Loon, which uses balloons. It sounds crazy, but two-thirds of the world’s people won’t have access to good Internet, and we thought: How can we get access points up cheaply? It’s so easy to launch a balloon.

Let’s talk about security, privacy, Edward Snowden.

Ha, I saw the picture of Sergey with Snowden yesterday. For me, privacy and security are really important. We think about it in terms of both: You can’t have privacy without security. For me, it’s tremendously disappointing that the government secretly did all this and didn’t tell us. We can’t have democracy if we’re having to protect you and our users from the government over stuff we’ve never had a conversation about. We need to know what the parameters are, what kind of surveillance the government is going to do and how and why.

You’re disappointed they didn’t come to Google.

No, for not coming to the public. We can’t have a functioning democracy without a conversation. It doesn’t make sense.

Let’s talk about privacy.

You carry a phone, and there’s so much information about you, so it makes sense why people are asking difficult questions. The main thing is we need to provide people with choices, show them what data’s being collected: search history, location data. I’m really excited about incognito mode. But I’m worried about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. When I lost my voice I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone’s medical conditions were available anonymously to medical doctors? You could see what doctors accessed it and why, and learn more about conditions you have. I was scared to share this voice stuff, but Sergey persuaded me, and it’s been really positive. I got all this information, I got a survey done, got medical conditions from people with similar issues. We’re not thinking about the tremendous good that could come from sharing the right information with the right people in the right ways.

So what is it about you and transportation systems?

I became obsessed with transportation when I was in school in Michigan. Eighteen years ago I learned about automated cars, and I’m super excited about it.

How close are we to the driverless car?

Very close. We’ve driven well over 100,000 miles by now.

Tell me about your philosophy. You don’t just want a small arena of progress.

Many of the things we just talked about use the economic concept of additionality: You’re doing something that wouldn’t happen unless you were actually doing it. The more you do things like that, the bigger impact you have. That’s about doing things that people might not think are possible. The more I think about technology, the more I realize I don’t know.

Lots of people think about the future — but then we never see implementation.

Invention is not enough. Tesla invented the electric power we use, but he struggled to get it out to people. You have to combine both things: invention and innovation focus, plus the company that can commercialize things and get them to people.

You are one of those people who believe that corporations are agents of change, if they’re run well.

I’m really dismayed. Most people think corporations are basically evil. They get a bad rap. And that’s somewhat correct, if companies are doing the same incremental things they did 20 years ago. But that’s not really what we need. Especially in tech, we need revolutionary change, not incremental change.

You once said you might consider giving your money to Elon Musk because you had confidence he will change the future.

He wants to go to Mars. That’s a worthy goal. We have a lot of employees at Google who’ve become pretty wealthy. You’re working because you want to change the world and make it better; if the company you work for is worthy of your time, why not your money as well? We just don’t think about that. I’d like for us to help out more than we are.

What state of mind, quality of mind, has served you best? Rupert Murdoch and many others have said “curiosity,” Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have said “focus.” What has enabled you to think about the future and change the present?

Lots of companies don’t succeed over time. What do they fundamentally do wrong? They usually miss the future. I try to focus on that: What is the future really going to be? And how do we create it? And how do we power our organization to really focus on that and really drive it at a high rate? When I was working on Android, I felt guilty. It wasn’t what we were working on, it was a start-up, and I felt guilty. That was stupid! It was the future.