Every year, Google leaders send out a quirky shareholder letter riffing on the company’s progress and outlook. This year’s missive, arriving in the midst of heated debates on technology’s role in society, struck a decidedly somber note.
Sergey Brin, president of Google parent Alphabet Inc, started the Founders’ Letter optimistically, ticking off the company’s contributions to an explosion in processor power and artificial intelligence capabilities. But he quickly turned to consequences of this progress, including ethical questions and the potential impact on jobs. “Technology companies have historically been wide-eyed and idealistic about the opportunities that their innovations create,” wrote Brin, who co-founded Google with Larry Page. “While I am optimistic about the potential to bring technology to bear on the greatest problems in the world, we are on a path that we must tread with deep responsibility, care, and humility.”
Brin’s letter lands as tech giants face historic public pressure. Regulators in Europe and Washington are scrutinizing Google and its peers over data collection, privacy and their growing digital market power. Meanwhile, inside Google, a dispute is raging about the company’s early cloud and AI work with the Pentagon. Brin didn’t directly address the Pentagon controversy. But he listed four different efforts at Alphabet to address the safety and ethics of AI and a powerful branch of the field called machine learning.
“I expect machine learning technology to continue to evolve rapidly and for Alphabet to continue to be a leader — in both the technological and ethical evolution of the field,” Brin wrote.