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Eric Schmidt wants to see new leaders running the world, fast. “The sooner we can get the next generation in charge, given all the errors we have made, the better,” says Schmidt, the former CEO of Google. “They are generally smarter, more optimistic, they have more energy. There’s a lot of reasons to turn this thing over to them.”
But just not any kids. Schmidt is a firm believer in the power of exceptionalism. On Nov. 16 Schmidt Futures, the organization that he founded in 2017 with his wife Wendy to empower “talent who want to work on the hardest problems,” unveiled Rise, a new partnership with the Rhodes Trust to scour the globe for the world’s most outstanding teenagers and to support them “through life” as they use their talents to build a better world. Applications are now being reviewed, and the initial class of 100 will be announced in July 2021.
Schmidt is busy writing his post-Google chapter. He’s chairman of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Reimagine NY commission, which is focusing on ways for the state to re-emerge from the pandemic. He recently completed a four-year stint advising the U.S. Department of Defense, and he was a big supporter of President-elect Joe Biden; his name has been floated for possible roles in the Administration.
Schmidt, 65, recently joined TIME for a video conversation on why 15 is a special age, how to start fixing social media, and why fears of killer robots are overblown.
(This interview with Eric Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Futures, has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Rise is on the hunt for the world’s most promising teenagers. Why that age cohort?
The question was, what’s the lowest age at which we can get a signal for excellence? And all of the anecdotal claims are it’s around 16. We’ll see if it’s true or not, but the claim is that you can tell through a series of tests and challenges and so forth who the really exceptional people will be. And exceptional here doesn’t mean just math, it means sort of creativity, verbal skills, sort of the kind of skills that are correlative with great impact.
So 15 or so is the magic number?
There’s lots of people who believe that the signal below 15 or 16 is unreliable. There’s lots of 12-year-olds who are super impressive, but the consensus is that it’s 16.
Maybe a side benefit of this project is that parents can calm down a bit about whether their 2-year-old is showing signs of exceptionalism.
We’re now in a situation where parents are in combat for their children. There’s lots of evidence that children grow up just fine on their own, but the reason Rise is interesting is that there’s plenty of talent programs, but there’s no global one.
You’ve partnered with groups like the African Leadership Group and the Latin American Leadership Academy to help find young people in refugee camps or who might otherwise slip through the cracks. How much value does the network of local partners add?
I am reasonably convinced that the United States is seeing the top talent within the U.S., and I’m very convinced that we’re not seeing the top talent from the rest of the world. The phrase we use is that talent is distributed universally, but opportunity is not. So the idea is especially for countries where we don’t really know very much, you find the local partners who care a lot about this, and they become your referral network.
How does the initial batch of 100 kids get chosen?
The system is designed so that an individual can nominate themselves, but you can also have someone else nominate you. And I personally prefer the latter, because it provides some signaling into the system. But part of our thesis is that there’s people sitting in Afghanistan who are the next Einsteins, who if we can get a phone to them we can communicate with them and we can identify them. And eventually get them out of Afghanistan and into sort of becoming a research scientist or a great musician or whatever it is.
My original idea was let’s do it fully digital. But a lot of people looked at this and said you cannot do a fully digital selection system because there will be gaming of the system. So you have to do it in two steps. You have a digital system which needs to be on the phone: there’s an app that we just released, which is essentially a series of challenges that you have to work through.
And we ask you to produce a video of yourself doing something that you’re interested in. So we think that’s sort of hard to game. We figure in between the test and that, that’s kind of a good funnel.
No, we have not seen any need to do any filtering so far. I mean, look, if it comes back and it’s rich white kids in the upper Northeast, then we’ve got a problem. Let’s say that no one from Afghanistan submits, well, that would be evidence that we did something wrong.
A philosophical question. You’ve had an exceptional life, you surround yourself with exceptional people. And you’re investing in developing the next generation of exceptional leaders. But is there an argument for focusing on making just the average person’s life a little bit better through public schools and health care?
Yeah, and I agree with that. And the question is the mechanism. And what I concluded was that the progress in the United States is driven by these exceptional people. And the American Dream is precisely that somebody that comes out of Appalachia becomes this. I grew up in rural Virginia, so I’m an example of that. And I carry those values with me. Most of the people that I deal with today came from modest backgrounds and had exceptional talent and exceptional luck. So it would be easy to take the money that I made out of Google and just paper it through the schools. And that would be a good thing. But I don’t think it’s as highly leveraged, and I’m all about leverage.
Are you familiar with the book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World?
It’s been described to me, I’ve not read it. I think that there’s plenty of examples to prove the thesis of the book, and there’s plenty of examples to disprove the thesis. If you look at it mathematically, the American Dream is in trouble because mobility between cities and so forth is much lower; dynamism is much lower; patrimonialism, which is where your family does well, is increasing. The fact of the matter is that if you look over the last decade, the average person on average has not done better. And the elite, obviously including myself, have done super well. And I think, I personally think the pandemic is gonna make that much, much worse.
One of the arguments of the book is that people like yourself use philanthropy to alleviate social pressure but also shape change in a way that will continue to benefit themselves.
That is certainly not my goal. What have I done in my career? The democratization of phones and the access to information. I basically networked the world and got information in everyone’s hands. I defy you to argue against making the average person smarter. That’s presumably a nonelitist strategy, right? And I would further say that if you look at the philanthropists in the ‘60s, Rockefeller and those guys, they were generally hated. But the institutions that they left have had great value to society.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has questioned the morality of an economic system that produces billionaires, and one of her early advisers popularized the slogan “Every billionaire is a policy failure.” What is your response?
We would probably all be better off spending more time understanding the contributions made by specific individuals and not making generalizations about anyone.
Do you also know the quote, attributed to Balzac, “Behind every great fortune there’s a great crime”?
That may have been true during his time. But the vast majority of my friends are not going to jail. Although I must say there’s a few who have.
Who are you thinking of?
Let me not name anyone. But my important point is, look, you can complain about the tech industry all you want, but the tech industry, as compared to other industries, it is one of the cleanest and most responsible in terms of … Look at other industries in terms of payoffs and influence peddling, and destruction of the earth. The tech industry is generally socially conscious. You may disagree with our social consciousness, but it’s endemic in the society. When Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] started Google, they were concerned about climate change 20 years ago.
In regard to great crimes, I was actually in this instance thinking about your partner the Rhodes Trust: Cecil Rhodes is a hall of fame colonialist, imperialist and white supremacist. Did that give you any pause in partnering with them on Rise?
No, no, and because I understand the context of history. The fact that George Washington had slaves does not mean that I revere him less. I just don’t like the fact that he had slaves.
Tell me about your notion of risk transfer and how that applies to your philanthropic thinking.
My wife Wendy and I are doing this together, and she has made the argument that I think is correct that the combination of political correctness, government caution and business conservatism make it harder to take hard risks. And that private philanthropists should be willing to take much bigger risks and suffer the failure. All real progress comes from taking risks, right? And everyone says they want to take risks, but they don’t. But there’s a small number of people who are willing to really bet the farm. And if I can find them, I’m gonna fund them.
Beyond your philanthropy, are there any venture investments that you’re particularly excited about?
I’m very interested in synthetic biology. I’d rather not go into the specifics. We’ve done a lot of stuff around food and vertical farming, the future of food, the future of transportation, the future of biology.
Do you think the current publicly traded companies—the Impossible Foods, the Beyond Meats—are pursuing the right path?
They are, they are. They really have done a good job. And I think they show the way. And it’s really hard to break into a very mature industry without a different angle, and I think they’ve got it. Most people think with food we’ll get to the point where we can grow the meat—it’s real meat, it’s not fake meat. But we can grow it without having to kill a cow. And I think you know that cows are a large contributor to global warming.
Your four-year term as chairman of the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Board recently ended. What was your focus there?
We did a lot of things. The military is incredibly, incredibly impressive, and it also has incredibly terrible systems. The hardware and the software are from the 1980s. So we set out to try to modernize that with lots of things. I’ll give you an example. The F-35 joint strike fighter was designed in 2001. It’s being deployed now at scale. The computers and the systems were all designed in the early 2000s. Think about that. So I worry that there’s an opportunity gap between what we could do and what we are doing.
Computers from the 2000s?
It’s complicated, and there’s a very long set of reasons. But we should be able to do that better. And in the case of the weapon systems, the vast majority of the cost is in the lifetime of the system. And so getting that right would save a trillion dollars. It’s a very large amount of money to the nation.
What was your most significant accomplishment there?
Probably the most important thing we did is our actions led to the creation of a joint AI center, which will be the place where all the AI work is done. The work is classified, but what the military will talk in general terms about is trying to use AI vision to watch instead of having a human watch. They use the systems to improve their targeting, their understanding of information, that kind of thing.
As you survey threats, drone strikes, bioterror, small dirty bombs, cyberattacks, do you worry about all of them or one in particular?
The military generally is concerned about China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and extremist terrorism. That’s generally their list. And you can debate what the order is, but that’s generally what they’re worried about.
Do you worry about swarms of armed drones from China, or is that science fiction?
No, that’s a likely attack scenario from China. There are science fiction [scenarios], and they’re basically autonomous collections of drones. And because [Chinese drone maker] DGI is 90% of the market, there are reasons to think that they might be leading in that area. There are answers to these, which I won’t discuss. These are all threats. It’s important to understand that the nation is never completely at peace.
Shifting gears, you are chairman of Cuomo’s Reimagine NY commission. What have you been focusing on there, and how involved are you?
A lot. So we issued our first set of reports, and our primary message has turned out to be broadband. The stories that we hear about access to broadband, difficulty of online education, especially from the underserved, are really tragic. We need to accelerate access to broadband. Many of these communities, by the way, are not rural. There’s lots of people in New York City who do not have access to broadband who need it for education, for work, for health care. So we, I think the consensus of the commission will be that broadband really needs to be 100% now. Think about it. I mean, how are you gonna get through the pandemic, and are you O.K. with having a whole generation of poor kids not getting educated for a year?
Do you currently engage in any hands-on tech-related activities like hands-on programming? Do you keep your fingers in at all?
Somehow, I’m the tech support for my empire. I spent a lot of time working on network design, fiber-optics design. I’m very, very interested in 5G. I must tell you, I’m not as good a programmer as I was when I was 20.
How’s your home wi-fi working?
There’s a new wi-fi called Wi-Fi-6, which I’m busy upgrading everybody to.
You’re a huge advocate of the benefits of artificial intelligence. Why do humans find it so scary?
I think AI is overwhelmingly positive. I’m writing a book with [Henry] Kissinger on the future of AI. What I would suggest is that the fears of AI come from the fact that people are watching too many robot movies, where inevitably it’s a female robot who then has a nerdy creator and then the robot kills the creator. That’s a great movie, but that’s not what we’re building.
If you don’t get killed by a beautiful robot, what’s the upside of AI?
The real AI is going to provide universal language translation, it’s going to provide universal summarization, it’s going to contribute to fantastic understanding across cultures, which is very important. AI will deliver progress in biology and chemistry. Can you imagine if you had materials that were twice as strong, half the price, no carbon emissions, that kind of stuff? All of that’s on its way. And the impact on the pandemic and viruses is without question.
Any concerns about AI?
The things I worry about—I think mostly about diffusion, because this technology’s gonna be broadly held, and evil people will figure out a way to use it. So for example they’ll make false videos and things like that.
What is your view of the government’s current antitrust case against Google and other big technology companies?
I was a CEO during much of the Google activities, and I can assure you there was no violation of antitrust law. If you don’t like what the tech companies are doing, there’s plenty of ways to regulate them. There are institutions that regulate them, whether it’s the Federal Trade Commission or the Federal Communications Commission. Or you can just pass laws. The problem I have with antitrust is it’s an awfully blunt instrument.
What would more targeted regulation look like?
So I’ll pick an example out of Amazon. So Amazon in its stores has a combination of its own brands and advertising and products it sells. It’s confusing to me, as a consumer. That’s an example where maybe we could come to some consensus on how they should be labeled. That’s not an antitrust thing, that’s a regulation.
You were recently quoted as saying the context of social networks serves as “amplifiers for idiots and crazy people.” Was that accurate?
It’s amazing, it’s truthfully what I said. And the reason I said it is when we built the social networks and social media, we did not intend them to become closed networks of crazy people who are getting their fellow crazy people riled up. That was not the design. The design was sharing experiences, opening up horizons, broadly educating people. And so what seems to have happened is that alarmist messages tend to get people on these networks worried, and then they tend to spread them. And that tends to overwhelm the more normal discourse.
How might regulation work on social media?
When you look at your Twitter feed, how many of the tweets do you see are from bots? Do you know?
I have no idea.
It should be possible to tell. It would be useful to know. And you can say, “Well, this is a bot. Maybe I want to listen to a human and not a computer.” I want you to have that choice. So what I’m concerned about now is that we’re all reacting to the fact that these systems are organized around sharing of alarmist information. As opposed to broadening the discussion of society and issues around it. And again, the solutions are in the algorithms, not in censorship.
So there are reports of you being considered for a role in the Biden Administration. What can you say about that?
Really nothing. I’m a huge Biden supporter, I was heavily involved in the election, and I know the people well. But it’s too soon to talk about that. They need to sort out who the Cabinet positions are first.
What broad area do you think you could add the most value in?
I’d rather not interview with you for them. But let me tell you that I’m very interested in funding and being involved in American competitiveness. Everything I’ve been talking about is about making America win. I use China as the opponent, but it’s really about I want America to win. America was great to me; I want the next generation to win as well. I don’t want us to lose the seed corn that was so successful on my behalf.