When Sergey Brin co-founded Google as a Stanford Ph.D. student, he never imagined that the company would become so wide-ranging and successful.
He certainly never imagined that he’d be onstage at the World Economic Forum, where founder Klaus Schwab would tell him that “the prime minister of quite an important country” recently called Alphabet (Google’s parent company) one of the four powers left in the world.
Despite Alphabet’s global dominance, Brin modestly attributes much of his success to luck. He said he was in Silicon Valley, where multiple technological revolutions (semiconductor, internet, mobile) have occurred and where a culture of both experimentation and social responsibility prevails.
“If I told you all of the dumb things I did, we’d have to have a much longer session,” Brin said. “And the successes, they often are chance.”
This serendipitous perspective also defines Brin’s view of humanity and business in the future, as he explained in a talk at the World Economic Forum earlier today. Brin began with a caveat about his ability to predict the next technological frontier.
“You maybe should doubt my answers a little bit,” he told the audience. Brin then shared an anecdote: A few years ago, he underestimated and largely disregarded Google’s research into artificial intelligence, believing that the concept of “neural nets” had been proven infeasible back in the 1990s. Today, Google Brain, the company’s AI research division, touches nearly all of the company’s projects.
Brin encourages experimentation and innovation, just as one of his professors did when he wanted to leave Stanford to launch Google. But his career has taught him that the future is impossible to predict. He is cautious in his forecasts.
“The evolution of technology might be inherently chaotic,” he said. “We have a set of values and desires today that are probably pretty different than before the Industrial Revolution, and different still than before the Agrarian Revolution. And we might continue to evolve.”
Brin noted that values and desires have shifted as jobs and work have changed, thanks to automation. Automation has given humans more time to think, reflect and pursue work that gives them a sense of purpose. As automation becomes more prevalent, Brin said jobs should retain this role. People should have the means to educate themselves for reasons other than to fulfill an economic need.
“I guess I would hope that — as some of the maybe more mundane tasks are alleviated through technology — people find more and more creative and meaningful ways to spend their time,” he said. “People find profound meaning in their day-to-day jobs, and I think that’s an important thing for us to preserve.”
He explained that today’s technology provides unprecedented opportunities for young people to pursue their interests — but also a unique new challenge.
“There are a lot of affordances that are such conveniences today that make it easy. But there’s also a global stage that makes it hard,” Brin said. “I would encourage young folks to take chances and pursue their dreams and try to silence out the voices that say, ‘Actually, there are 1,000 startups trying to do self-riding bicycles.’”
Finally, Brin shared his own values as humanity hurtles toward an uncertain future. He emphasized that the objective of business must shift to meaningful, socially driven goals beyond moneymaking — just as he believes that, despite automation, individuals must continue to have the means to pursue jobs that fulfill their passions.
“You can’t just think narrowly, ‘Oh, this is your business, you’re just going to maximize earnings, it doesn’t matter what’s going on around you,” Brin said. “If you look at the laws and regulations and SEC rules, technically you’re meant to be purely profit seeking, and that’s not really a reasonable position to take.”