Artificial intelligence will give people special powers, Google's EMEA president says

In an interview with The National at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Matt Brittin says 'we'll be doing things we didn't think we could have dreamed up before'

'We should be optimistic about AI,' Google tells The National at Davos 2024

'We should be optimistic about AI,' Google tells The National at Davos 2024
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Matt Brittin, president of Google in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is upbeat about the future of artificial intelligence and believes “it's a really interesting moment, the promise of AI, we can start to see for the first time, and it's up to all of us to harness its potential for good”.

Speaking to The National in Davos, Mr Brittin spoke about the results of a poll released by Google today highlighting that the majority of people globally see the benefits of AI.

As AI plays a greater role in various aspects of life, including work and education, “we really want to engage on these issues, and that's why we're trying to bring things like people's opinions into the room alongside the experts, alongside governments”, which is also why Google has a large presence at the World Economic Forum annual meeting here.

Mr Brittin sees AI as playing a defining role across people’s lives, and told The National: “It is going to give us special powers that we didn't think we could have had and in our lifetimes. Even in the next five years, I think we'll be doing things we didn't think we could have dreamed up before.”

He added that while challenges exist, “we should be optimistic, but also keep our eyes wide open about our responsibilities to get this right”.

Under the title of “Our life with AI”, Google surveyed 17,000 people in 17 countries about what they knew about AI and how they felt about it.

“Interestingly on average, something over 70 per cent of people felt like AI was going to be a force for good in their lives over the next five years,” Mr Brittin said.

The main results of the survey show that the majority of people saw that “AI was changing the way they learn, the way they work, discover information, but also in health and disease research and treatment”.

And while general sentiment was positive, “about the most positive were [in the] UAE, where three-quarters of people were saying they saw AI as a force for good in their lives over the coming years. And more than 90 per cent of the UAE would benefit itself from implementing AI”, Mr Brittin said.

Interestingly, respondents to the report from the US were the least optimistic about AI, where 41 per cent thought it was having a positive impact on how they work while that figure was 71 per cent in emerging markets.

Mr Brittin said AI had “a terrible brand, really. AI sounds like some kind of Star Wars thing”, but many people use it, for example, in Google Search, Translate or YouTube.

However, it is “the advent of the Chatbot and that kind of generative AI that we've seen that sort of open people's minds … and what they see is a tool that allows them to be smarter and do things faster”.

The use of generative AI and its role in creative production “really changes the game, particularly for people from disadvantaged or lower educational backgrounds”, said Mr Brittin, who remarked that it was “really exciting” to see how they could benefit from it.

He dismissed the idea that AI would replace people in jobs.

“All of the research and the early signs are that, in most cases, you're going to be competing against somebody using AI”, he said.

As such, Mr Brittin said “what you want to do is get access to AI and learn how to use it. It's our job to make it as simple as possible for you”.

With access to AI and its use to improve efficiencies and develop new roles “my sense is that in most cases, what we'll see is jobs changing a bit. You'll see people put time into more stuff that only humans can do”, he said.

However, that access to AI is varied across societies and countries.

“We also need to be conscious that we shouldn't leave people behind”, Mr Brittin said, adding that a comprehensive approach was needed.

“One of the things that comes out in the survey is that people want governments and tech companies to work together to make sure AI is safe and responsible, and to make sure that nobody is left behind.”

Mr Brittin pointed to the skilling up that Google does in the region.

“One of the things I'm proud of is our work we've done in Maharat and Google across the Middle East and North Africa. We've trained over 1.5 million people in digital skills to sort of lower the concerns that it's not for me, and actually help them to see how to use these technologies productively in their working lives,” he said.

Having said that, technology companies themselves are going through major changes and 2023 witnessed lay offs from major companies, including Google, which announced new job losses earlier this month.

Asked about these redundancies, Mr Brittin said “the main thing that's going on is we are focusing on AI. And focusing on the innovations, we've talked about building AI responsibility at pace in order to do all the things that we've just been discussing, and that means shifting people and focuses”.

“Inevitably, that means changing how we're organised moving people into these kinds of project areas,” he said.

“And sometimes that means that we have to make unfortunate restructurings, which means some people leave the business.”

He went on to discuss the speed of change, stating that it was “normal for an innovation company to constantly redeploy and change. And that's what we're doing”.

On the long-term benefits of AI, Mr Brittin said there were “two ways to think about the AI innovation arena – the extraordinary and then turning that into the everyday”.

Among the extraordinary is AlphaFold, a protein structure database developed by DeepMind, according to Mr Brittin – “a billion years of progress in a matter of months – and then we made that available for free to anyone doing this kind of research. And now we've got something like 1.6 million people using those tools”.

With an AI system that predicts a protein’s 3D structure from its amino acid sequence, “you can put all that effort into the drug discovery … that's absolutely revolutionary”.

Mr Brittin touts that as an example of extraordinary innovation.

Then there are “the everyday things like eco-friendly routing on Google Maps, which is saving huge amounts of emissions, or the Nest thermostat [that] saves over 100 billion kilowatt hours of energy used in homes, just by tuning to how you want to heat your home”.

Ultimately, the two combined is how Mr Brittin sees the benefits of AI unfold.

However, among the concerns around AI is misinformation and how people can be informed if the sources of information used in generative AI cannot be stood up.

Issues pertaining to accuracy and bias have yet to be resolved. Mr Brittin acknowledged this challenge and said “we've worried about it since the beginning of Google, which turned 25 years old last year”.

He adds that when it comes to search “we're trying to get people-accurate, or authoritative, answers to things”.

“And that's one of the reasons we partner so closely with media organisations because we want to make sure that quality content can be found and be funded. And so, we've learnt a lot over the years of running Google Search and YouTube and other projects about how to think about factuality,” he said.

He went on to say one of the reasons Google had been “more cautious than other organisations” in launching Bard, their generative AI tool was “because people want to rely on Google”.

In approaching these issues, Mr Brittin said Google wants to be bold, responsible and collaborative.

“Being bold, really trying to find the innovations like Alpha Fold that can be breakthrough [tech], being responsible, making sure we think about safety from the start, and then doing it together,” he said.

He stressed that innovation was a “team sport and it's not for us to settle the standards we engaged with. That's why I'm here at Davos, [to] engage with policymakers, businesses, media, organisations, NGOs, to think about what responsibility looks like in this really important new field”.

On whose responsibility it is to ensure the safety of AI and its uses, Mr Brittin clarified that “ultimately, governments set the laws … and, of course, everybody [who] operates in a country has to respect those laws, and rightly so”.

However, he added that “it's a team sport, and you need governments, companies and communities working together”.

One of the results of the Google survey, conducted with Ipsos, is that most people trust academic institutions and companies more than governments, with some exceptions, including the UAE.

Mr Brittin said the high level of trust in AI and in the government was “because the government has been talking about this for so long, people have a high degree of trust in the government as well”.

The UAE was the first country to appoint a Minister of AI, Omar Al Olama, in 2017.

Mr Brittin stressed that AI was a “a new technology and we don't know fully how it's going to be used. That's exciting but we need to kind of really make sure we understand how it can be misused, and work together – governments, tech companies, society – to address those challenges”.

One risk he sees is that AI could “lift the richest and the most educated, and we need to make sure this is for everyone”.

Updated: January 17, 2024, 5:36 AM