Google CEO Calls AI "More Profound Than Electricity or Fire"

Sundar Pichai - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

Sundar Pichai - H 2015

Sundar Pichai at the World Economic Forum in Davos also discusses net neutrality and fighting hate speech online.

Artificial intelligence's importance can't be overstated, according to Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

"AI is probably the most important thing humanity has ever worked on," he told the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday in a session that was live-streamed. "I think of it as something more profound than electricity or fire."

He highlighted that constrained resources often cause problems for the world. "AI for the first time, I think, over time offers a different construct," he argued. "Things which are constrained and look like a zero-sum game today may not be so in the future. … AI is kind of an equalizer." He cited education as one example. 

Asked about the risks of using AI for war and the like, Pichai said: "I think over time people will realize it's tough to weaponize it, because everyone will have the same ability." But he added, "You need a global consensus not to use it for military purpose."

Asked about his thoughts on net neutrality and the idea of a two-speed internet in the U.S., Pichai said, "Net neutrality is an important concept on which the internet has been built. … People don't want their traffic to be discriminated in a certain way. I'm hopeful we cherish those principles to preserve them for the coming years."

The Federal Communications Commission in December scrapped the net neutrality rules that have been in place and prohibited internet service providers from blocking certain websites or content or giving favorable treatment to some. 

Who wins or loses in a world without net neutrality? "I worry less about Google as a company … but for the next set of entrepreneurs building their services and trying to use users," he said. "And I think that's the principle we all need to fight for."

The Google boss was also asked about the online giants' track record of avoiding or removing hate speech on digital platforms. Should digital platforms unilaterally decide what content is acceptable? "No, I don't think that’s the right outcome," he said. "As a digital platform, we feel like we are on the cutting edge of the issues that society is grappling with," such as "where do you draw the line of freedom of speech."

He argued Google has made "tremendous progress" over the past year. "The way we did it is by engaging with many NGOs, counterterrorism organizations, nonprofits, and they guide us where to draw the line," Pichai said. "Sometimes the government helps us by giving clearer laws. … It's the function of a democratic society to decide where to draw the line. I don't think it should be any single company."

He concluded, "We believe in engaging with governments. They are trying to solve important problems, and we want to be a constructive partner."

The Google CEO on Wednesday also said it is a "moral imperative" to get more women into technology.