Google’s Eric Schmidt waxes futurist on the digital divide at Mobile World Congress

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt channeled famed futurists like Ray Kurzweil and Michio Kaku in his keynote at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona today. What started as an overview of new features in Chrome for Android turned into a powerful discourse on the power of technology and what it means for the future of society.

(You can also view the entire keynote online.)

As if to out-race critics of an overly technological society, Schmidt first brought up the current digital divide. “When we talk about the power of technology we need to be realists,” he said. “For most people the power of technology has not really arrived.”

But he added that people will still be able to change the world if you connect them with information. He also said that hard drives and processors will are expected to cost below $1 in the next decade, something that futurists have been predicting for some time. That alone will make technology more accessible to everyone.

He then presented a new digital divide, one that isn’t necessarily class-based, but is instead based around how people use and interact with technology. For the wealthy, he said, the limits of technology will be limited by “what we deem ethical.” (Shades of Philip K. Dick, anyone?)

“While we overestimate short-term change, we massively underestimate the long-term technological change,” Schmidt said.

He presented a scenario where a wealthy person could remotely attend two events, say a rock concert and business meeting, that are continents apart via “tiny robots.” The robots would  give you a 3D holographic view of the proceedings that Schmidt believes would be almost as good as the real thing. When one audience member asked if we’d be losing anything by remotely experiencing events, Schmidt seemed amusingly perplexed by the notion.

Indeed, the idea of remote 3D viewing doesn’t seem that far off at this point. Schmidt reminded the audience that driverless cars are “closer than we think.” Google’s driverless vehicles have already clocked over 200,000 miles, and the company also recently helped convince the state of Nevada to approve the use of driverless cars.

“So there’s an emerging global group of citizens inspired by people like Steve Jobs who believe that technology can change the world, but the ultimate vision is that technology actually disappears… it becomes part of everyday life,” Schmidt said.

Like electricity, he says that the web will be “everything and nothing” — vitally important to modern civilization, yet at the same time mostly invisible and easily taken for granted.

He then brought up another class of users, the “connected contributors,” a label which will describe many technology geeks. Schmidt described the group as middle class people who can use technology to change their lives. Developers, as part of the connected contributor group, will create apps and services that change society. We’ve been seeing this for the past few decades, but it will certainly become even more pronounced in the near future.

“Computer science is more than writing code and coding is more than writing programs,” Schmidt said. “Developers are the engineers of human freedom.” At that point, you could almost feel the electricity running through the rapt Mobile World Congress crowd.

Schmidt said that technology will make us more aware of major events and conflicts happening around the world. Again, he turned to 3D holographic projection as a way to experience things like foreign revolutions, or a total eclipse that you can only see in one country.

Not everyone can be a developer though. Other members of the connected contributors group will be those who support the work of developers, Schmidt said:

There are those who create and those who buy. Those who buy will purchase the creations of others. But they’ll be educated consumers, supporting the creations of the 10 percent. They’ll defend the commons of the web from attacks.

“The web is more than a network of machines, it’s a network of minds that’s evolved into a global consciousness,” Schmidt added. “It is the web that unites us in sentiment and action.”

Schmidt then focused on the 5 billion people at the bottom of the technology divide, which he called the “aspiring majority.” He admitted that the web is still a scarce resource for this group, but said that infrastructure technology will also get cheaper and more efficient, enabling more people than ever to get connected. And in places where fixed-line Internet access isn’t possible, people can still connect with their communities using mesh networks, which connect devices locally and don’t require an Internet connection.

“Technology will change the relationship that people have with the world,” Schmidt said. Just like with the Arab Spring, technology will allow people in poor countries to communicate the injustices they face every day. “In this new world there will be far fewer places for dictators to hide,” he added.

While elites will still exist, Schmidt said that “technology is a leveler — the weak will be strong, and those with nothing will have something.” But he also noted that we need to be careful to protect the web from government regulation, “We need to act now to avoid the rise of the new digital caste system. We’re not all born into families with robots and laptops.”

“Technology is power by its very nature, and by ensuring access we can create a global community of equals,” Schmidt said with a hopeful tone.

He ended his keynote on a sentimental note, “I’m very very proud of my tribe,” he said, referring to the technology community. “Let us resolve as developers and entrepreneurs to build a world where everyone has the opportunity to be connected.”

Some quotes via The Verge’s liveblog;Image via Jolie O’Dell

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