Former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, parts ways with the company

Having served as CEO from 2001 to 2011, Schmidt is now moving on

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CNET dropped an exclusive report over the weekend, announcing that long time Google/Alphabet executive Eric Schmidt has now left the company entirely. He’s been a figure who has overseen many of Google’s biggest successes, such as building the Android ecosystem, acquiring and growing YouTube, and launching Chrome then building it to be the most popular web browser. But his tenure at Google has not been without controversy, especially towards the end, and there are some big questions about what exactly he’ll be doing next.

He had been initially hired as CEO back in 2001, a role which he stayed in until 2011, before transitioning into a role on their board of directors. He stepped down from the board of directors back in 2017, after which time he served as technical advisor, until February of this year when it turns out he left the company entirely.

Perhaps the very public scandal of Google covering up a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination, and paying out massive multi-million dollar exit payments to a pair of executives accused of sexual harassment, a decision Schmidt would bear ultimate responsibility for, was in part the final straw. This culminated in a mass walkout of employees in 2018, and a 2019 lawsuit that alleged:

“Alphabet’s Board employed a completely dual and contradictory standard: If you were a high‐level male executive at Google responsible for generating millions of dollars revenue, Google would let you engage in sexual harassment. And if you get caught, Google would keep it quiet, let you resign, and pay you millions of dollars in severance.”

He also served on the board of directors when Google removed their famous “don’t be evil” line from their code of conduct.

Schmidt, also himself directly generated controversy when he attended a Stanford AI conference, resulting in protests from academics, researchers, and even many current and former Google employees, who felt that his track record did not make him a suitable choice for delivering their keynote speech. In an open letter outlining their concerns, they had this to say about Schmidt’s record on human rights

“Many employees within the company were disturbed with the company’s refusal to clarify its boundaries on the censorship of human rights and student protests, or which protections it would put in place for pro-democracy journalists and human rights activists. Since then, more than 700 Google employees signed a joint letter in protest of the project, and, soon after, it was revealed that Google’s privacy team had been shut out. Yet, to this day, the company refuses to state that profiting from the suppression of democracy and dissent violates any of its principles. And, Mr. Schmidt is the most vocal champion of this violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The keynote speech went ahead regardless.

It would appear that he is now going to be dedicating his time towards working inside government, within areas that intersect with his technology background. Concerns about his track record on areas like covering up sexual harassment and misconduct, dubious approach to enabling coverups of human rights abuses, and silicon valley tech-centric single-mindedness will no doubt come into play further as he moves from the world of tech business into the world of National Defence.

He’s currently chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), a US National Defense government program intended to advance the use of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. 

In the NSCAI 2019 interim report, Schmidt said the following:

“How the United States adopts AI will have profound ramifications for our immediate security, economic well-being, and position in the world. Developments in AI cannot be separated from the emerging strategic competition with China and developments in the broader geopolitical landscape. We are concerned that America’s role as the world’s leading innovator is threatened. We are concerned that strategic competitors and non-state actors will employ AI to threaten Americans, our allies, and our values. We know strategic competitors are investing in research and application. It is only reasonable to conclude that AI-enabled capabilities could be used to threaten our critical infrastructure, amplify disinformation campaigns, and wage war. China has deployed AI to advance an autocratic agenda and to commit human rights violations, setting an example that other authoritarian regimes will be quick to adopt, and that will be increasingly difficult to counteract.”

Heavy stuff! A lot to unpack there. Clearly this is a shift in focus for Schmidt, where before he was concerned with issues like how to successfully manage a mobile operating system or improving search functionality, now he’s thinking about national security, non-state actors threatening the American way of life through AI, and addressing concerns about Chinese government getting ahead of the US government in this field of technology.

The stated goal of the NSCAI is to use AI to advance American interests, but I think today it’s not exactly clear how this will work, and what a future American society rebuilt around AI might look like. I guess let’s hope it’s more Star Trek and less The Terminator.

He’s also been tapped by New York governor Andrew Cuomo to “reimagine” the city in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with areas like education, communications infrastructure, and commerce systems all being rethought. It’s a tricky area, because of course mechanisms to help prevent the continued spread of COVID-19 and potential future viruses are of course important area for the government to work in, I think there are reasonable concerns about how civil liberties and privacy can be maintained if we shift to a society that relies even more on digital technologies and AI going forward.

Ultimately, you don’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and you don’t get to be a billionaire tech entrepreneur and chairman of a National Security commission without stepping on a few toes. It’s going to be interesting to see how much he maintains a public profile as he fully shifts into these new kinds of roles, or if he will focus more on running things from the background. Will the controversies he’s left in his wake follow him around, or will he get to act with little to no accountability and consequences for the mistakes he’s made along the way. Only time will tell.