Sundar Pichai of Google: ‘Technology Doesn’t Solve Humanity’s Problems’

You started at Google 14 years ago. Does it still feel like the same company you joined?

When I first joined Google I was struck by the fact that it was a very idealistic, optimistic place. I still see that idealism and optimism a lot in many things we do today. But the world is different. Maybe there’s more realism of how hard some things are. We’ve had more failures, too. But there’s always been a strong streak of idealism in the company, and you still see it today.

What’s your approach to technology and screen time with your family?

When I come home on a Friday evening, I really do want to let go of my devices for a couple days. I haven’t quite succeeded in doing that. At home, our television is not easily accessible, so that there is “activation energy” before you can easily go watch TV. I’m genuinely conflicted, because I see what my kids learn from all this. My son is 11 years old, and he is mining Ethereum and earning money. He’s getting some insight into how the world works, how commerce works.

Every generation is worried about the new technology, and feels like this time it’s different. Our parents worried about Elvis Presley’s influence on kids. So, I’m always asking the question, “Why would it be any different this time?” Having said that, I do realize the change that’s happening now is much faster than ever before. My son still doesn’t have a phone.

Why does it seem so easy for tech companies like Google to ban pornography and graphic violence from social media platforms, but so much harder for them to root out propaganda, misinformation and disturbing content aimed at kids?

There are areas where society clearly agrees what is O.K. and not O.K., and then there are areas where it is hard as a society to draw the line. What is the difference between freedom of speech on something where you feel you’re being discriminated against by another group, versus hate speech? The U.S. and Europe draw the line differently on this question in a very fundamental way. We’ve had to defend videos which we allow in the U.S. but in Europe people view as disseminating hate speech.

Should people be able to say that they don’t believe climate change is real? Or that vaccines don’t work? It’s just a genuinely hard problem. We’re all using human reviewers, but human reviewers make mistakes, too.

How do you approach this in China, where Google is considering returning to the market with a search engine?