In disruptive times, the power comes from people: An interview with Eric Schmidt

Here is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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As we enter a new golden age of technological innovation, nurturing talent will become more critical, according to the former chairman of Alphabet.
With his decades of experience in Silicon Valley, Eric Schmidt is regularly tapped for his views on the future of technology and how the latest disruptive innovations in areas such as artificial intelligence could shape the world. Yet he’s quick to point out that it’s the people behind the technology who make the difference, a sentiment he admits is oft repeated yet still somehow underestimated. Developing young talent into the inventors and leaders of tomorrow is a major focus of Schmidt’s philanthropic efforts—and Rise, a new joint initiative between Schmidt Futures and the Rhodes Trust, embodies that mission.
At the recent McKinsey BLINK Conference in the United Kingdom, Schmidt spoke about the dizzying speed of disruption, as well as how to nurture and position people to harness technological dynamism for the greater good of organizations and society. An edited version of his remarks follows.

Talent: Where incredible meets profound

We’re at the beginning of another golden age. When I think about the next big tech innovations, I like to distinguish between those that are incredible and those that are profound. Self-driving cars could be incredible. They can potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives. But new technologies that allow a paradigm shift in the way we solve problems would be profound. Many of today’s toughest problems exist because we are at the limit of what we can understand.

In synthetic biology, for example, we’re only just beginning to understand how to make the changes that are necessary to stop and start biological processes that are beneficial to humans, animals, and plants. That field is about to explode.

When it comes to climate change, batteries look like they might be part of the answer, in combination with solar and wind. Developing longer-lasting organic batteries, however, requires a better understanding of their material properties.

Wouldn’t you like to have a drug that would cure whatever disease you have? The easiest way to achieve that is with drugs that figure out how to build the correct protein in your body to stop a virus from replicating.

All this progress is underway, thanks largely to techniques in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and generative design. Collectively, these technologies will allow the discovery of new solutions to important problems at a rate we’ve never seen before.

But when I think about how we’re going to solve the problems ahead of us, the answer is people. We need to acknowledge how powerful people are, particularly those who are willing to take risks and drive societal change. Exceptional people are the ones who change society. They’re just born different and are insanely capable—and they’re rare. Yet they don’t show up just in the elite organizations or the cities of the world. People confuse elite with exceptional; the elite are self-proclaimed, while the exceptional are identified. Thanks to the internet and the fact that about half the people in the world have a smartphone, we can reach these people in a way we couldn’t before.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Eric Schmidt is the cofounder of Schmidt Futures, chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, and former chairman of Alphabet. His commentary here was adapted from his opening remarks and fireside chat with Kevin Sneader, global managing partner of McKinsey & Company, at the McKinsey BLINK Conference on digital and social disruption, which took place in London in November 2019.


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