Ex Google CEO underestimated AI but New CEO Pichai sees transition from smartphone era to AI era

Eric Schmidt was CEO of Google from Aug 2001 to April 2011. Eric has recently admitted that he underestimated machine learning and artificial intelligence

Schmidt’s assessment back then was that artificial intelligence research faced tremendous obstacles that inhibited its progress. He “didn’t think it would scale,” he said of the machine learning tech.

And he said he also didn’t think it would “generalize,” meaning becoming more flexible and elastic, like the human mind, rather than remaining a specialized tool suited only to specific tasks.

Schmidt had underestimated the power of simple algorithms to “emulate very complex things,” he said, while qualifying that “we’re still in the baby stages of doing conceptual learning.”

Google’s current CEO Sundar Pichai has described the world as having entered an “AI-first” era. The preceding phase was a focus on all things mobile- and smartphone-first, according to Pichai, who succeeded Schmidt after a second CEO stint by Google co-founder Larry Page

This past fall, Google held two major product launches in San Francisco less than a week apart. At the first, it unveiled Google Cloud, a big expansion of offerings for business customers, such as the G Suite assortment of productivity tools (formerly known as Google Apps). The second was an Apple-esque hardware extravaganza at which the company announced the first Google-designed smartphones (the Pixel and Pixel XL), as well as a competitor to Amazon’s Echo speaker (Google Home), a virtual-reality headset (Daydream View), a wireless router (Google Wifi), and an upgrade to its video-streaming gizmo (Chromecast Ultra).

The wide scope represented by that lineup may suggest that Pichai isn’t picking his competitive battles. But his key ambitions are bound by a core prediction: that the world is moving from the smartphone age into, in Pichai’s phrase, an “AI-first” era, in which Google products will help people accomplish tasks in increasingly sophisticated, even anticipatory ways. The Pixel phones and Google Home, for instance, are the first devices with embedded support for Google Assistant, a rival to Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa that is designed not only to handle straightforward commands but also fuzzier requests such as “Play that Shakira song from Zootopia.” The Assistant is also designed to engage in relatively complex conversations related to tasks such as making vacation arrangements.