Eric Schmidt's Great Leap Forward

(First of all, a meta-comment. Are there any, pro-laissez-faire, libertarian-leaning peeps on this site besides myself?)

Normally I don’t share NYT articles, but this is special. One, there’s no paywall, and two, it gives us a direct view into the perspective of a full-fledged globalist technocrat on world affairs, and the message people like him want to send to the common man.

Eric Schmidt (ex-Google CEO, net worth estimated $14 billion) goes begging to the American people to finance his dreams.

He does not dazzle his readers with promises of self-driving cars, zero-latency websites, or airports with good internet, like other tech hucksters. It’s not in Schmidt’s DNA to waste time on flights of fancy like that. He cuts straight to the point, delivering threats of global chaos with perfect objective deadpan neutrality.

Now we are in a technology competition with China that has profound ramifications for our economy and defense…

…If A.I. advances elsewhere outpace those of U.S. companies and the U.S. government, and give commercial and military advantages to our rivals, “the resulting disadvantage to the United States could endanger U.S. national security and global stability.”

What I find striking about the use of China in this essay is that Schmidt wants Americans to see China as both an exemplar of modern progress and an evil empire to be feared. I believe we are seeing a mismatch between the true feelings of Schmidt (admiration for totalitarian power in China and elsewhere) and the way he panders to his audience (the language of competition and patriotism). More commentary on that at the end.

He goes on to ask for money: double the federal funding to an array of fields, and then double again, and increasing the military’s budget. He also wants the government to “incentivize” a rival to Huawei.

Now why would billionaire capitalists need all of this from average joes? The answer is simple. The projects they want to build simply don’t make financial sense.

Just look at 5G, for example. Projected costs are in the trillions, and the industry’s own researchers admit that profit margins for 5G will be very thin. In other words, there is no demand. At least not enough to justify an investment from any bank or VC. And in the era of Uber, Tesla, and WeWork, that’s saying a lot about the viability of 5G.

That is why Schmidt is turning to the public sector. It is these ambitious mega-projects, not ordinary consumer-facing tech, that Schmidt is afraid we’ll “fall behind” on.

Finally, we must address the concerns Americans rightly have about privacy, security, algorithmic bias, technical standards and the potential impact new technologies will have on the work force. If the American public does not trust the benefits of new technologies, those doubts will hold us back. Despite earnest efforts, the tech community has not demonstrated convincingly that it can regulate itself. The wide-ranging societal impact of A.I. in particular warrants government involvement.

If the abundant reminders of his credentials and prestige weren’t enough, Schmidt wants to make it absolutely clear here that he is not like you. He is part of an elite group of people called the “tech community.”

That’s why Schmidt’s use of the pronoun “we” has changed here. It no longer includes the people he’s asking for money (the American public), but only members of the tech community. The tech community has no concern about privacy as enshrined in the Bill of Rights or equality as exemplified in the Civil Rights Act. No, those topics are not important to them except for being hobgoblins stuck in the minds of Americans that impede the work of this chosen few. However, the Americans have them by the jewels presently with this Techlash business, so let’s just pass some laws already and get on with it.

He ends the essay by invoking China again.

Ultimately, the Chinese are competing to become the world’s leading innovators, and the United States is not playing to win.

We must show that these new technologies can advance individual liberty and strengthen free societies. For the American model to win, the American government must lead.

Schmidt speaks with the language of free enterprise and competition here. But this is not a game for you or me. Competition is not between entrepreneurs for the consumer’s dollar, but between nation-states for geopolitical influence. Whoever builds the most base stations, the biggest supercomputers, and the widest dragnet gets the prize of imposing their laws and culture on the rest of the world. So America needs to either pony up or lose the contract.

Let’s go back to that one little paragraph he writes on ethics.

Finally, we must address the concerns Americans rightly have about privacy, security, algorithmic bias, technical standards and the potential impact new technologies will have on the work force.

I have a better idea than addressing other people’s concerns with laws you won’t follow anyway. Put yourselves in our shoes and ask yourselves: what kind of world do I want to build for my children, no matter which country they live in? What freedoms do I want them to have, and what limits do I want others to respect regarding them? Build the technology that can make that a reality and put it on the market.

And if we like the sound of it, we will buy it. Voluntarily.


Have you seen the TV series Mr. Robot, @penmanship?