Google’s Schmidt Talks Future Tech, World Connectedness at Princeton Turing Centennial


Princeton University celebrated the centennial of Alan Turing’s birth in grand style from May 10-12, 2012. Turing, known as the “father of computer science,” earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton in 1938, before there was a computer science department at the institution.

The university hosted addresses by some eight winners of the Turing Award, considered to be the “Nobel Prize of computing,” as well as lectures by many other distinguished computer scientists. The range of topics was breathtaking, from quantum computing to modern programming languages and beyond.

A centennial celebration highlight was a public address by Eric Schmidt, Princeton graduate and executive chairman of Google. While not a Google founder, Schmidt has helped grow the search giant from startup to global entity and is credited with finding a way for the company to scale its infrastructure and diversify product offerings while attempting to hold on to a culture of innovation.

Princeton Tech Meetup members gathered beforehand at the local Panera Bread to walk together to Schmidt’s talk at McCosh Hall. Tickets had been reserved earlier. The event was so popular that it was being simulcast to several overflow rooms.

At the heart of Schmidt’s lecture was the belief that technology can be used to benefit all classes of society, including the 5 billion unconnected people on this planet, most of whom live in underdeveloped areas. He called this group “the majority” and was sure that “one day they, too, will be connected.”

“The reality is that for the next decade, those people are not going to be as connected as we are fortunate enough to be,” he added, for five reasons: they live in war zones, they have higher priorities, governments are corrupt, being connected requires infrastructure and they are not very organized.

Packed_house_waits_for_Eric_Schmidt_to_speakOne way to fix this is by using mesh networks, networks without a center. Companies can build phones that serve as mesh nodes, and together all these phones can form a powerful network.

Eventually people in the developing world will obtain devices with enough memory to store their high school education on them, Schmidt said. “All of a sudden their phone, which they are obsessed with, will be their educational and entertainment device,” he predicted.

What’s important about developments in storage and processing does not involve storing photos, Schmidt said. It’s important that people anywhere can obtain a body of knowledge on their smartphones that can be translated on the fly to a language they speak. Think of what happens when a device like this shows up in an area that doesn’t have a textbook, he said. Those with nothing will have something.

Most unconnected people will have interestingly cobbled together networks, perhaps a single connection to a village with a Wi-Fi connection, and they will use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) from their phones to the Wi-Fi connection, Schmidt predicted. They will still need Short Message Service (SMS) as a backup.

To the students in the audience Schmidt said that while they are building on the foundation of Turing and other great Princeton mathematicians, most humbling to him is that “you are just beginning to have something with a boundless capacity, a connected humanity you will create.”

Earlier in the evening, Schmidt began his talk by saying one of the most remarkable things about computer science when he arrived at Princeton in 1972 was that you could almost know it all. There was a relatively small community of people working in the field.

Schmidt reminisced about how he had used an IBM 360/91, which at the time was “literally the fastest computer I had ever encountered.” It had all of one megabyte of memory, made out of iron core. “Most of those 360s were sold, because their contents were valuable as minerals,” he remarked.

While for most people on the planet the digital revolution has not yet arrived, the privileged few will experience the world in an ultraconnected way, Schmidt noted. For this group the future offers only what science can deliver and what is legally permissible, he added.

A data infrastructure is emerging that combines telemetry and sensors, to know where things are, Schmidt noted. He asked the audience to imagine what life will be like when we have real-time telemetry, driven by the presence of phones and other devices.

All estimates say that by 2020 true fiber-optic networks will be available in the Western world’s urban centers. Fiber optics will deliver a gigabit pipe, and that amount will cause all the limitations of HD and delivering media to disappear, he said.

Schmidt said we are already seeing some predictions made in “Star Trek” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” come to pass. A major example is voice-to-voice translation: people speak into their phones, the spoken word is translated to text, the text is translated to another language and then a voice synthesizer transmits it to another person, all done in real time by supercomputers. Other examples: voice recognition and electronic books, once the stuff of science fiction.

“So the people who now talk about the possibility of holograms, virtual reality, are almost certainly right,” commented Schmidt. The beginnings of these technologies are present in the labs, and the underlying computational and distribution capabilities are going to be there, he said.

Driverless cars are another invention that will be realized in our lifetime, Schmidt predicted. “Isn’t it obvious that the car should drive you?” he asked. It never gets drunk or lost. And if properly designed, it doesn’t hit anything, he added.

{Update: You can now watch the speech on YouTube at this site.}

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