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October 31, 2014 12:39 pm
Wouldn’t the world be a happier place if 90 per cent of the people with jobs put their feet up instead and left the robots to do the work? Why didn’t the last house you bought cost only 5 per cent of what you paid for it? And is there any reason why you or your children shouldn’t one day enjoy limitless cheap power from nuclear fusion and a greatly extended lifespan?
These are the sort of questions that occupy Larry Page. At 41, the co-founder and chief executive of Google is freeing himself up to think big. A reorganisation in recent days has shifted responsibility for much of his company’s current business to a lieutenant and left him with room to indulge his more ambitious urges. The message: the world’s most powerful internet company is ready to trade the cash from its search engine monopoly for a slice of the next century’s technological bonanza.
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Looking forward 100 years from now at the possibilities that are opening up, he says: “We could probably solve a lot of the issues we have as humans.”
It is a decade on from the first flush of idealism that accompanied its stock market listing, and all Google’s talk of “don’t be evil” and “making the world a better place” has come to sound somewhat quaint. Its power and wealth have stirred resentment and brought a backlash, in Europe in particular, where it is under investigation for how it wields its monopoly power in internet search.
Page, however, is not shrinking an inch from the altruistic principles or the outsized ambitions that he and co-founder Sergey Brin laid down in seemingly more innocent times. “The societal goal is our primary goal,” he says. “We’ve always tried to say that with Google. I think we’ve not succeeded as much as we’d like.”
Even Google’s famously far-reaching mission statement, to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, is not big enough for what he now has in mind. The aim: to use the money that is spouting from its search advertising business to stake out positions in boom industries of the future, from biotech to robotics.
Asked whether this means Google needs a new mission statement, he says: “I think we do, probably.” As to what it should be: “We’re still trying to work that out.”
When we met recently for a wide-ranging interview at his company’s Silicon Valley headquarters, Page displayed the characteristically tentative personal style that is a marked contrast to the definitive self-assurance of most corporate bosses. No doubt aware of the added responsibility that comes with running a company with 55,000 workers that is increasingly under the spotlight, he also chooses his words more carefully than he once did. But there has been no apparent change to the ambition and the expansiveness of his ideas – even if, as the father of two young children, he says he has become more conscious of long-term issues such as education.
Page finds himself at the helm of one of the world’s most powerful tech companies at a moment in history when the onrush of technological change is threatening to bring sweeping social and business disruption. Google’s goals are bigger than most – yet, even as it pours money into new ventures, the cash keeps piling up. It now exceeds $62bn.
“We’re in a bit of uncharted territory,” he says. “We’re trying to figure it out. How do we use all these resources . . . and have a much more positive impact on the world?” For Google’s investors, who have already become wary recently about the size of the company’s massive bets on the long-term future, this could be just the beginning.
As Page sees it, it all comes down to ambition – a commodity of which the world simply doesn’t have a large enough supply. In the midst of one of its periodic booms, Silicon Valley, still the epicentre of the tech business world, has become short-sighted, he says. While arguing that the Valley isn’t fundamentally “broken”, he agrees that it is overheated – though how much that matters is a different issue.
“There’s definitely a lot of capital and excitement, and these things tend to happen in cycles,” he says. “But 100 years from now you’re probably not going to care about that.”
Much of the money pouring into the tech industry is drawn by the promise of easy profits from the latest consumer internet boom, he says. “You can make an internet company with 10 people and it can have billions of users. It doesn’t take much capital and it makes a lot of money – a really, really lot of money – so it’s natural for everyone to focus on those kinds of things.”
Page estimates that only about 50 investors are chasing the real breakthrough technologies that have the potential to make a material difference to the lives of most people on earth. If there is something holding these big ideas back, it is not a shortage of money or even the barrier of insurmountable technical hurdles. When breakthroughs of the type he has in mind are pursued, it is “not really being driven by any fundamental technical advance. It’s just being driven by people working on it and being ambitious,” he says. Not enough institutions – particularly governments – are thinking expansively enough about these issues: “We’re probably underinvested as a world in that.”
To the question of whether a private company, rather than governments, should be throwing its weight behind some of the world’s most long-range and ambitious science projects, he retorts: “Well, somebody’s got to do it.”
This is where Page’s engineer’s mind comes into play. The son of a computer science professor father, he likes, according to people who know him, nothing more in internal meetings than to burrow deep into technical issues. He describes, for instance, how he drills down into how Google’s data centres are run, following the issue of how much the company pays for power into questions about the design of electricity grids. With the right focus and application, he implies, there’s nothing that can’t be improved and made to run more efficiently.
A recent visit to a start-up working on nuclear fusion has enthused him with the possibility of a breakthrough in low-cost energy. Another start-up has surprised him by being able to “read” the mind of a human subject being shown visual images. “A really smart group of committed people with $50m can make a lot of progress on some of these problems. But not enough of that’s happening,” he says.
Some of Google’s own big bets are in areas that he describes as being at the “fringes” – things that seem open to a technological solution but which, for some reason, have not received concerted attention. As examples, he picks self-driving cars and the diseases that afflict older people – the latter a field that his wife worked in at a lab at Stanford University. “It wasn’t a high-status thing,” he says. Through a new biotech arm called Calico, Google is now planning to plough hundreds of millions of dollars of its own into the area.
“We do benefit from the fact that once we say we’re going to do it, people believe we can do it, because we have the resources,” he says. “Google helps in that way: there aren’t many funding mechanisms like that.”
But compared with its heady early days, when every brash initiative was welcomed by an adoring public with the indulgence of a parent celebrating a child’s finger paintings, the onrush of technological change has started to stir up fear.
“I think people see the disruption but they don’t really see the positive,” says Page. “They don’t see it as a life-changing kind of thing . . . I think the problem has been people don’t feel they are participating in it.”
A perennial optimist when it comes to technology, he argues that all that will change. Rapid improvements in artificial intelligence, for instance, will make computers and robots adept at most jobs. Given the chance to give up work, nine out of 10 people “wouldn’t want to be doing what they’re doing today”.
What of people who might regret losing their work? Once jobs have been rendered obsolete by technology, there is no point wasting time hankering after them, says Page. “The idea that everyone should slavishly work so they do something inefficiently so they keep their job – that just doesn’t make any sense to me. That can’t be the right answer.”
He sees another boon in the effect that technology will have on the prices of many everyday goods and services. A massive deflation is coming: “Even if there’s going to be a disruption on people’s jobs, in the short term that’s likely to be made up by the decreasing cost of things we need, which I think is really important and not being talked about.”
New technologies will make businesses not 10 per cent, but 10 times more efficient, he says. Provided that flows through into lower prices: “I think the things you want to live a comfortable life could get much, much, much cheaper.”
Collapsing house prices could be another part of this equation. Even more than technology, he puts this down to policy changes needed to make land more readily available for construction. Rather than exceeding $1m, there’s no reason why the median home in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, shouldn’t cost $50,000, he says.
For many, the thought of upheavals like this in their personal economics might seem pie in the sky – not to mention highly disturbing. The prospect of millions of jobs being rendered obsolete, private-home values collapsing and the prices of everyday goods going into a deflationary spiral hardly sounds like a recipe for nirvana. But in a capitalist system, he suggests, the elimination of inefficiency through technology has to be pursued to its logical conclusion.
“You can’t wish away these things from happening, they are going to happen,” says Page. “You’re going to have some very amazing capabilities in the economy. When we have computers that can do more and more jobs, it’s going to change how we think about work. There’s no way around that. You can’t wish it away.”
. . .
When it comes to discussing policy, Page, like many technocrats, quickly sounds frustrated by the intractability of issues that are not susceptible to the kind of rigour he brings to his technological inquiries. “I do think there’s a tremendous amount of angst about these things and we’ve got to turn it round,” he says, though he has few concrete ideas about how to do that. “As a society, it’s very difficult to do something differently, and I don’t think that’s good.
“Some of the most fundamental questions which people are not thinking about, there’s the question of how do we organise people, how do we motivate people,” he says. “It’s a really interesting problem, how do we organise our democracies? If you look at satisfaction in the US, it’s not going up, it’s going down. That’s pretty worrying.”
In a reference to what he sees as Europe’s weak support for entrepreneurialism and technology, he adds: “I think many of the problems in Europe are like that.”
Another obstacle lies closer to home. In reaching for the tech industry’s ultimate prizes, Google may already be knocking up against the limits of what it is possible for one company to do. Page relates a frequent debate that he says he had with Steve Jobs, the boss of Apple, who died three years ago: “He would always tell me, You’re doing too much stuff. I’d be like, You’re not doing enough stuff.”
The argument he made to Jobs: “It’s unsatisfying to have all these people, and we have all these billions we should be investing to make people’s lives better. If we just do the same things we did before and don’t do something new, it seems like a crime to me.”
But the idealism does not blind him to the problem of his own ambition. “What Steve said is right – you, Larry, can only manage so many things.” If he – and Google – are to win, they will have to beat the odds that have held big companies back in the past, particularly in the tech industry, where few leaders from one generation of technology have made it big in the next.
“The biggest companies are all within an order of magnitude of the same size, certainly in market cap,” says Page, who has a palpable sense of the limits against which his company is already pushing. “You say we’re going to take over all these important things, but there’s no example of a company doing that.”
His thinking about how to break through the invisible ceiling seems to have been evolving of late. Google X, the internal lab that was the brainchild of Brin, marked a first attempt to back big new ideas, with projects such as Glass and the driverless car. Despite Brin stepping back from Google’s main business, Page still describes them as close allies. “We spent a lot of time together . . . there are very few people who share that experience,” he says. Of Brin’s constant agitation to reach for the biggest bets, he adds: “He’s always on the more extreme side, which is important.”
Now, moving beyond X, Page is experimenting with setting up freestanding business units with semi-independent leaders charged with building big new businesses under the wing of Google. Besides Calico, Google has revealed in recent days that these will include the “smart home” division Nest, as well as a new unit comprising its investments in internet access and energy. Google has also quickly emerged in the past two years as the biggest venture capitalist in Silicon Valley.
There is no model for the kind of company Google wants to become, says Page. But if there’s a single person who represents many of the qualities he thinks will be needed for the task ahead, then it’s famed investor Warren Buffett.
Sounding not at all like the idealistic young technologist who once spoke of brain implants that would answer questions by the power of thought, he says: “One thing we’re doing is providing long-term, patient capital.”
He is at an age where he can still afford to take the long view. But with an ambition that shows few bounds, patience may be another matter.
Richard Waters is the FT’s US West Coast editor
Photographs: David Black; Steve Jennings/WireImage; Getty; Reuters; Eyevine
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