Two highly influential Americans, Walter Isaacson and Eric Schmidt, convened at the Aspen Institute’s McNulty Room on Tuesday to discuss the direction of the U.S. in the digital age.
Isaacson is the president and chief executive officer of the Aspen Institute and former CEO of CNN. Schmidt is the executive chairman of Google and was its executive officer from 2001 to 2011.
Isaacson began the conversation by asking Schmidt how he thinks America can repair its depressed economy. Schmidt replied by laying out a list of requirements that society must be willing to accept and implement to achieve economic growth. First, U.S. society needs to fix the problem of immigration.
“America is sufficiently stupid that we take smart people from other countries, we educate them at the best universities in the world, and then we kick them out and send them to other countries to create companies to compete with ours,” Schmidt said.
In addition, he said the status of women must improve to encourage more leadership and female entrepreneurship. There also must be an even greater level of connectivity being that only 2 billion of the world’s more than 7 billion people are connected to the Internet. Schmidt said that an increase in connectivity would give more leeway to entrepreneurship and innovation, which is what the U.S. needs to revitalize its economy.
In the next decade, Schmidt said he expects to see great innovation in the fields of medicine, transportation, education and basically all aspects of everyday life.
“Mobile phones, which everyone carries, will essentially become mobile diagnostic devices in the next generation,” Schmidt said, adding that there are 31,000 preventable deaths on U.S. highways. “We will soon be at the point where cars are smart enough that their configurations can prevent crashes, especially when you’re drunk.”
Schmidt also spoke of online education as a supplement to collaborative classroom learning to aid remedial students. In addition to technology helping evolve education in schools, Schmidt cited advancements such as hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, as an example of positive innovation.
Although many people consider fracking too harmful to the environment, Schmidt noted its development as an instance where intelligent, creative minds can lead to technological achievements.
“Fracking technology changed the entire energy equation for America,” Schmidt said. “It was invented in America by small companies and entrepreneurs that figured out a new way to do this horizontal mining in very clever ways, and the big companies bought them. That cycle is true in business, as well.”
In addition to fracking, one of the more controversial topics of discussion was the country’s degree of information security and privacy and from the federal government. Edward Snowden recently brought this issue to light by leaking top-secret information regarding the National Security Agency’s mass-surveillance programs. The dilemma is that people want to take any precautions necessary to fight the war on terror; however, the necessary precautions include giving up a degree of privacy that Americans have come to expect.
“I would much rather prevent terrorism than spend trillions of dollars in Iraq,” Schmidt said. “However, it is up to society to draw that line and find the balance.”
For those who began getting fearful of how technologically sophisticated America is becoming, Schmidt assured the audience that “there is some limit to the madness.”
A recurring argument made by older generations is that today’s youth are so dependent on Google and their smartphones that they would not be able to function with the loss of the Internet.
“I don’t need to know everything, I just need to know where to find it, when I need it,” Albert Einstein said.
With Google in existence, anyone can know everything at anytime in an instant; not even Einstein could have predicted this. Schmidt responded by saying society will adapt, as it has in the past.
“A lot of people decry the youth and its connectivity,” Schmidt said. “When I was young, people decried rock ‘n’ roll and thought it would destroy us, but we turned out OK.”
Scott Schlafer is an editorial intern working for The Aspen Times through July.