Down in the Val­ley

Google’s Sun­dar Pichai talks to Jemima Kiss

The Guardian - Weekend - - Starters Contents -

When Sun­dar Pichai was grow­ing up in Chen­nai, south-east In­dia, he had to make reg­u­lar trips to the hos­pi­tal to pick up his mother’s blood-test re­sults. It took an hour and 20 min­utes by bus, and when he got there he would have to stand and queue for an hour, of­ten to be told the re­sults weren’t ready.

It took five years for his fam­ily to get their first ro­tary tele­phone, when Pichai was 12. It was a land­mark mo­ment. “It would take me 10 min­utes to call the hos­pi­tal, and maybe they’d tell me, ‘No, come back to­mor­row’,” Pichai says. “We waited a long time to get a re­frig­er­a­tor, too, and I saw how my mom’s life changed: she didn’t need to cook ev­ery day, she could spend more time with us. So there is a side of me that has vis­cer­ally seen how tech­nol­ogy can make a dif­fer­ence, and I still feel it. I feel the op­ti­mism and en­ergy, and the moral im­per­a­tive to ac­cel­er­ate that progress.”

Now 45, Pichai is a tall, slight man whose voice is a soft har­mony of In­dian and Amer­i­can ac­cents. Sit­ting in his of­fice in a quiet cor­ner of Google’s head­quar­ters, in Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia, he speaks thought­fully, of­ten paus­ing to find the right phrase. The room houses a few pieces of de­signer fur­ni­ture, and the requisite tread­mill desk – the per­fect metaphor for the pace Pichai has to keep up with. Yet his is a dis­arm­ingly calm pres­ence, a world away from the pre­vail­ing stereo­type of the ma­cho-ge­nius tech CEO; when Pichai got the job, one Google em­ployee was quoted as say­ing: “All the ass­holes have left.”

When Google re­struc­tured its sprawl­ing busi­ness in 2015, it cre­ated a par­ent com­pany, Al­pha­bet, as a home for its more ex­per­i­men­tal projects – space ex­plo­ration, anti-mor­tal­ity – leav­ing its eye-wa­ter­ingly lu­cra­tive con­sumer prod­ucts with Google. Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, moved to Al­pha­bet, leav­ing Pichai as the pop­u­lar choice for CEO: he had al­ready proved him­self with his work on the web browser Chrome and An­droid, Google’s ubiq­ui­tous smart­phone brand.

Com­pared with Page and Brin, and for­mer CEO Eric Sch­midt, Pichai is a mod­est and low-key fig­ure­head. “I don’t do that manyy in­ter­views,” he says as we sit down in his “hud­dle” ddle” meet­ing room. But the more we talk, the more it be­comes clear thathat his ap­point­ment may be Google’s’s shrewdest move yet: is he the per­fect sec­ond gen­er­a­tion chief exec? He cer­tainly has a lot in his Gmail in­box. The cat­a­logue of Google con­tro­ver­sies is now so big it war­rants its own Wikipedia en­try, run­ning from tax avoid­ance and an­titrust is­sues to host­ing ex­trem­ist con­tent and re­cent claims of sex­ist em­ploy­ment prac­tices (it cur­rently faces a class ac­tion over pay dis­crim­i­na­tion). Ear­lier this year, Pichai an­nounced a ma­jor con­cep­tual shift for the com­pany, mov­ing from “mo­bile first” to “ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence [AI] first”. This puts the fo­cus firmly on ma­chine learn­ing, de­vel­op­ing voice-recog­ni­tion prod­ucts such as Google Home, a smart speaker that re­sponds to ver­bal re­quests to play mu­sic or con­trol light­ing; and, in­creas­ingly, vis­ual recog­ni­tion.

“In an AI-first world, in­ter­ac­tions be­come even more seam­less and nat­u­ral,” Pichai ex­plains. “So, with voice, you can speak to things, and we are work­ing on Google Lens, so your com­puter can see things the way you see them.” Lens, due to launch later this year, will add vis­ual recog­ni­tion to smart­phone cam­eras: point it at a restau­rant, and it will find re­views on­line. Pichai also cites lan­guage trans­la­tion as a com­pelling ex­am­ple of ad­vanced AI; in­stant trans­la­tion, both ver­bal and vis­ual, will be pos­si­ble with a high de­gree of ac­cu­racy within a few years, he says.

But this is where Google’s sell be­comes tricky. Many devel­op­ments in its ser­vices – tai­lor­ing ads ac­cord­ing to per­sonal data, us­ing someone’s lo­ca­tion to present lo­cal in­for­ma­tion – are viewed as in­va­sions of pri­vacy. The com­pany has been the tar­get of in­tense scru­tiny on this score, par­tic­u­larly since 2013, when Ed­ward Snow­den re­vealed that the NSA and MI5 had been ac­cess­ing per­sonal in­for­ma­tion via tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies.

With the ap­pli­ca­tion of AI, those con­cerns move into a whole new realm. In 2013, Google bought Deep­Mind, the pow­er­ful UK-founded AI com­pany, with the aim of de­vel­op­ing its ca­pa­bil­i­ties fur­ther; but there are pro­found ques­tions around the safety and ethics of cre­at­ing ma­chines that can think and act for them­selves. Does Pichai ac­knowl­edge these con­cerns? “I recog­nise that, in the Val­ley, peo­ple are ob­sessed with the pace of tech­no­log­i­cal change,” he says. “It’s tough to get that part right… We rush some­times, and can mis­fire for an av­er­age per­son. As hu­mans, I don’t know whether we want change that fast – I don’t think we do.”

An­other fre­quently raised con­cern is Google’s seem­ingly un­stop­pable growth: a year ago, it un­veiled an ini­tia­tive to reach “the next bil­lion” smart­phone users, tar­get­ing In­dia with a hand­ful of tools de­signed for mo­biles with slow in­ter­net con­nec­tions, in­clud­ing a ver­sion of YouTube.

Isn’t this a kind of tech­no­log­i­cal im­pe­ri­al­ism, bull­doz­ing a way into the de­vel­op­ing world? Pichai is pre­pared for this ar­gu­ment. “I want this to be a global com­pany,” he ar­gues. “But it is also im­por­tant that we are a lo­cal com­pany… We don’t build only Google prod­ucts and ser­vices – we build an un­der­ly­ing plat­form, too, so that when you en­able smart­phones to work well in a coun­try, you also boot­strap the en­tre­pre­neur­ial sys­tem there. The two go hand in hand.”

His am­bi­tion is to make An­droid so cheap that it can be used as part of a $30 smart­phone; Pichai has said be­fore that he can see “a clear path” to five bil­lion users. “We want to democra­tise tech­nol­ogy,” he says. “Once ev­ery­body has access to a com­puter and con­nec­tiv­ity, then search works the same, whether you are a No­bel lau­re­ate or just a kid with a com­puter.”

By any mea­sure, Pichai’s jour­ney to the top of Google is a re­mark­able one. He was born into a mod­est mid­dle-class fam­ily in Chen­nai, where he lived in a two-room apart­ment with his mother, a stenog­ra­pher; fa­ther, an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer; and younger brother. The fam­ily had no car; some­times all four of them would travel on the fam­ily moped. De­spite Pichai’s shy­ness, he was al­ways con­fi­dent and ex­tremely de­ter­mined, says Pro­fes­sor Sanat Ku­mar Roy, who taught him for four years at the In­dian In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy Kharag­pur, where he stud­ied met­al­lur­gi­cal en­gi­neer­ing: “I think he had some ge­nius lurk­ing in him.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 1993, Pichai won a schol­ar­ship for a mas­ter’s in ma­te­ri­als science at Stan­ford. His fa­ther, who earned 3,000 ru­pees (£63) a month, with­drew nearly a year’s salary from the fam­ily sav­ings to pay for his son’s flight to San Fran­cisco. “When I landed, my host fam­ily picked me up and driv­ing back it looked so brown,” he re­mem­bers. “She cor­rected me: ‘Cal­i­for­nia is golden, not brown!’”

He speaks of that time as a real cul­ture shock, when he was grap­pling with his first ex­pe­ri­ences of com­put­ing. “I didn’t un­der­stand the in­ter­net. The change was too much for me. I think I was a lit­tle lost. But I felt the Val­ley was a spe­cial place. Peo­ple would take me se­ri­ously for my →

‘In the Val­ley, peo­ple are ob­sessed with the pace of tech­no­log­i­cal change. It’s tough to get right. We rrush some­times, an­dan can mis­fire’

ideas, not be­cause of who I was or where I came from. It’s the re­mark­able thing about Amer­ica we take for granted: that I could come and, af­ter day one, my opin­ions mat­tered.”

Af­ter Stan­ford, Pichai worked at McKin­sey and stud­ied for an MBA, be­fore join­ing Google in 2004. Two projects ce­mented his rep­u­ta­tion within the or­gan­i­sa­tion. Chrome, the now ubiq­ui­tous web browser, be­gan as an ex­per­i­ment by his team of 10 en­gi­neers. He re­mem­bers the mo­ment they got a pro­to­type work­ing, and re­alised it was pretty good.

But there was sig­nif­i­cant re­sis­tance: no­body wanted the chal­lenge of tak­ing on Mi­crosoft’s mighty In­ter­net Ex­plorer. “Most peo­ple here didn’t want us to do a browser, so it was a lit­tle bit stealthy. Once we had it up and run­ning, I re­mem­ber show­ing it to Larry and Sergey – and even then there was a lot of scep­ti­cism.” But Pichai got his way: Chrome was re­leased in 2008 and now ac­counts for nearly 60% of the mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to NetMar­ketShare, while In­ter­net Ex­plorer lan­guishes on less than 16%.

An­droid, Google’s smart­phone soft­ware, is now used by two bil­lion peo­ple, but started as a small com­pany bought by Google in 2005. In 2013, An­droid’s founder Andy Ru­bin was re­placed by Pichai. With char­ac­ter­is­tic diplo­macy, Pichai says now that the busi­ness needed a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. “To do well and in­no­vate, you need to have a con­struct by which peo­ple can work to­gether, not built on in­di­vid­ual peo­ple who are su­per­stars.”

Still, there is no deny­ing that Pichai has had some­thing of a su­per­star’s rise him­self. Since be­com­ing CEO, he has over­seen seven prod­ucts, each of them used by more than a bil­lion peo­ple: Search, YouTube, Gmail, Chrome, Maps, An­droid and the Google Play Store, through which the com­pany sells apps, mu­sic, movies and books.

Run­ning a busi­ness that has more cus­tomers than the pop­u­la­tion of any coun­try on Earth comes with its own unique headaches, namely a com­plex (and some­times com­pet­ing) range of geopo­lit­i­cal and so­cial is­sues. The prospect of reg­u­la­tion is loom­ing – in­ten­si­fied by re­cent con­cern about po­lit­i­cal ads bought by the Rus­sians to in­flu­ence the US elec­tion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion last month levied a £2.2bn fine against Google for abus­ing its dom­i­nance in search ad­ver­tis­ing, and aims to push ahead with plans to force tech giants to pay more tax.

Against all these is­sues, Pichai pits Google’s will­ing­ness to look for col­lab­o­ra­tive so­lu­tions. He wearily ex­plains the com­pany’s po­si­tion on tax; it be­came so syn­ony­mous with “tax­ef­fi­cient” busi­ness prac­tices that a 2015 levy on multi­na­tion­als was dubbed the “Google tax”. “With tax, we would only ar­gue for a more rea­son­able global tax struc­ture,” he says. Is he sug­gest­ing that Google could and should pay more tax, if the loop­holes were closed? That would be quite a con­trast to Sch­midt, who once said he was “proudly cap­i­tal­is­tic” and in­sisted Google took ad­van­tage only of gov­ern­ment in­cen­tives. Pichai neatly side­steps this by cit­ing the Paris cli­mate agree­ment which, at least un­til re­cently, was an ex­am­ple of in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion: “It is su­per-im­por­tant that hu­man­ity fig­ures out more global co­op­er­a­tive frame­works to solve prob­lems. No sin­gle com­pany or coun­try can change the pace of progress.”

In a speech to the UN in New York last month, Theresa May chal­lenged tech­nol­ogy firms to take more re­spon­si­bil­ity for their role in fa­cil­i­tat­ing ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity on­line, de­mand­ing they take down ex­trem­ist con­tent within two hours, the win­dow in which it is usu­ally shared the most. Isn’t it fair to in­sist a com­pany such as Google shares re­spon­si­bil­ity for an­other un­in­tended con­se­quence of its vastly prof­itable suc­cess?

“She’s try­ing to ad­dress an im­por­tant prob­lem,” Pichai agrees, “and we should do bet­ter than we are do­ing to­day. The scale of these things is very dif­fi­cult. In ab­stract, we have no dis­agree­ment, but the prac­ti­cal­ity is agree­ing on a lot of im­por­tant things.” These agree­ments led to an an­nounce­ment in June that Google would add warn­ings and block ads from in­flam­ma­tory videos, and would in­crease the use of both hu­man and al­go­rith­mic mod­er­a­tors to flag and re­move the most ex­treme videos. Within the con­text of its west coast lib­er­tar­ian ide­ol­ogy, Google also has to strike a dif­fi­cult bal­ance be­tween al­low­ing all par­ties free­dom to ex­press their views, while not fa­cil­i­tat­ing ter­ror­ism. This could ex­plain why, rather than speak more pub­licly about its poli­cies, Google is choos­ing to part­ner with other tech firms, in­clud­ing one re­cent ini­tia­tive with the UN →

‘Theresa May is ad­dress­ing an im­por­tant prob­lem. But the scale of these things is dif­fi­cult: we have to agree on a lot’

counter-ter­ror­ism com­mit­tee. Out­sourc­ing the prob­lem might make it feel slightly more com­fort­able for Google, which does not want to em­pha­sise its geopo­lit­i­cal power.

Pichai says all the right things, but there is a fine line be­tween thought­ful (the word his col­leagues most of­ten use to de­scribe him) and eva­sive. Google has long had a ten­dency to avoid any­thing that looks like a po­lit­i­cal is­sue and si­mul­ta­ne­ously come to rep­re­sent so many of the in­dul­gences of the tech in­dus­try; even San Fran­cisco’s spate of protests against gen­tri­fi­ca­tion were tar­geted around Google, rather than the lux­ury com­muter shut­tles of all the other tech firms. “As a com­pany, we end up be­ing a sym­bol for many things, whether we want to or not,” Pichai says. “We have to hold our­selves to a much higher bar than ev­ery­one else. When we make mis­takes it is very costly.”

Re­cently, he fired an en­gi­neer who wrote a con­tro­ver­sial 10-page memo ar­gu­ing against di­ver­sity ini­tia­tives, and claim­ing that the lack of women in tech was due to bi­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences. James Damore out­raged women at Google and the wider in­dus­try, and fired up the rightwing press, by claim­ing that Google em­ploy­ees with con­ser­va­tive views had to stay “in the closet”. One colum­nist ar­gued that Pichai should be fired for not ac­knowl­edg­ing the en­gi­neer’s con­cerns.

But while many crit­ics seemed to view the de­ci­sion to fire Damore as a state­ment about the right to free ex­pres­sion, Pichai viewed it as a work­place is­sue. “Ob­vi­ously, you have an im­por­tant right to free­dom of speech, but you also have an equal right to work free of ha­rass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion. When we talk about women in tech, our rep­re­sen­ta­tion is around 20%. No­body is try­ing to so­cially en­gi­neer any­thing [here] – we are try­ing to solve hard prob­lems. We were the first to pub­lish our di­ver­sity num­bers.”

In April, the US Depart­ment of La­bor ac­cused Google of “sys­temic com­pen­sa­tion dis­par­i­ties against women pretty much across the en­tire work­force”. In Septem­ber, a class ac­tion law­suit was filed, al­leg­ing women were seg­re­gated into lower pay­ing roles. “Any time you are in con­flict with the gov­ern­ment, you are never go­ing to look good,” Pichai ad­mits. “The over­whelm­ingly im­por­tant thing is that we don’t have enough women in se­nior roles and higher-pay­ing jobs. We are so com­mit­ted to do­ing the right thing here, work­ing on the un­der­ly­ing is­sues that pre­vent women from achiev­ing their true po­ten­tial. I feel very strongly about it.”

Jen Fitzger­ald started at Google as an in­tern in 1999. She is now vice-pres­i­dent of prod­ucts and en­gi­neer­ing, and has worked with Pichai since he joined the com­pany in 2004. Like ev­ery­one I speak to at Google, she says he is widely re­spected for his thought­ful­ness. “Sun­dar is un­afraid to make tough calls,” Fitzger­ald says, “but be­fore he makes that call, he makes sure he has heard from the

Pichai with his wife, An­jali, whom he met at col­lege in In­dia, where he stud­ied met­al­lur­gi­cal en­gi­neer­ing

right peo­ple across the com­pany. He doesn’t make tough calls in iso­la­tion.”

Does he think some peo­ple in the Val­ley saw his ap­point­ment as a risk, given the pre­vail­ing cul­ture? Ap­ple co-founder Steve Jobs, Ama­zon founder Jeff Be­zos and Mi­crosoft co-founder Bill Gates all cul­ti­vated rep­u­ta­tions for abra­sive ego­tism, a con­ve­nient nar­ra­tive that ex­cused and even en­cour­aged bad be­hav­iour. In June, the tech in­dus­try’s most prom­i­nent bad boy, Uber’s for­mer CEO Travis Kalan­ick, was pushed out of the com­pany he co-founded af­ter months of scandal.

“I’m not a fan of one story that tries to be ar­che­typal,” Pichai says. He met Jobs, and doesn’t think enough is said about his more pos­i­tive sides, his en­thu­si­asm and drive. “I do think the Val­ley has good ex­am­ples of lead­ers. Hewlett and Packard, who founded the Val­ley, built a com­pany with a very strong set of val­ues and were re­mark­ably good to their peo­ple and part­ners. I never felt these things were at odds with each other. For the scale of Google, it is even more im­por­tant to work well with oth­ers. In terms of a man­age­ment phi­los­o­phy, I try to find peo­ple – not that they aren’t in­di­vid­u­ally bril­liant at what they do – but peo­ple with the abil­ity to tran­scend the work and work well with oth­ers.”

At home, Pichai de­scribes him­self as a news junkie who starts ev­ery day with an omelette, a cup of tea and a print copy of the Wall Street Jour­nal. Back in In­dia, where news­pa­pers are om­nipresent but ex­pen­sive, he had to wait his turn un­til his grand­fa­ther and fa­ther had read the pa­per, though he did learn to ne­go­ti­ate for the cricket pages. He lives with his wife An­jali, whom he met at col­lege, and their daugh­ter, Kavya, and son, Ki­ran. He is fa­mil­iar with the screen-time ne­go­ti­a­tion that goes on in most fam­ily homes, and used to re­strict their time, but is now not so sure. All of us are more com­fort­able when our kids read books, he says, but if they read on a Kin­dle, does that count? And what if the YouTube videos they watch are ed­u­ca­tional?

“There are many ex­tra­or­di­nary peo­ple at Google who would say they spent high school play­ing video games all the time,” he says. “Video games were how many peo­ple got into com­puter science, so a part of me thinks this gen­er­a­tion of kids needs to deal with a new world. Pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions al­ways feel un­com­fort­able with new tech­nol­ogy.” In the Wright broth­ers’ era, he points out, there were se­ri­ous news­pa­per opin­ion pieces wor­ry­ing that bi­cy­cles would en­dan­ger young women, by en­abling them to cy­cle away and es­cape. “Our kids are also be­com­ing bet­ter at dealing with vis­ual in­for­ma­tion. But I’m not say­ing I have the an­swers. I strug­gle with it, too.”

In In­dia he has be­come fa­mous, and is mobbed wher­ever he goes. His story is the one ev­ery fam­ily dreams of: hard work and huge re­ward. Big­ger egos might be tempted to ex­ploit that pop­u­lar­ity: would he ever re­turn to In­dia and move into pol­i­tics? He looks slightly em­bar­rassed and shifts in his seat. “I wouldn’t be any good at it… But I do want to go back to In­dia and give back. I feel in­cred­i­ble sup­port when I go there; it is hum­bling.”

When I ask how it feels to be in charge of Google, Pichai pauses and looks de­ter­minedly at the floor, then out of the win­dow. “His­tory shows that the op­po­site of what peo­ple were wor­ry­ing about is typ­i­cally true. Go back 10 years and look at the largest mar­ket cap com­pa­nies: the big­ger you are, the more you may be at a dis­ad­van­tage.” He talks of the im­por­tance of cre­at­ing small teams with lim­ited re­sources, even within a com­pany with 66,000 em­ploy­ees and a mar­ket value of $642bn. “As a big com­pany, you are con­stantly try­ing to fool­proof your­self against be­ing big, be­cause you see the ad­van­tage of be­ing small, nim­ble and en­tre­pre­neur­ial. Pretty much ev­ery great thing gets started by a small team.”

It’s not lost on him that Google’s great­est threat could be its own suc­cess. And it is also re­veal­ing to have it con­firmed that when you reach the top the big­gest thing you worry about is slid­ing back down again. “You al­ways think there is someone in the Val­ley, work­ing on some­thing in a garage – some­thing that will be bet­ter.” •

do­mes­ticHe is fa­mil­iar screen-time­with ne­go­ti­a­tions. ‘But part of me thinks this gen­er­a­tion of kids needs to deal with a new world’

From left: Larry Page, Sergey Brin; n; Page, Sun­dar Pichai, In­dian PM Naren­dra Modi and Eric Sch­midt

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.