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Google Ideas: The Future According to Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen (It's Good, Not Evil)

Will increased connectivity create more good or more evil in the future? Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of the tech giant with the famous founding motto of "Don't be evil," is naturally concerned with this question. Schmidt has recently teamed up with Google Ideas director Jared Cohen to co-author the forthcoming book, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business which looks at how technology will continue to reshape nearly every aspect of our lives. 

We got a preview of Schmidt and Cohen's manifesto this year at The Nantucket Project, a festival of ideas that takes place on Nantucket, Massachusetts. In Cohen and Schmidt's exchange onstage, Cohen played the role of Devil's Advocate. 

We can get tacos delivered to us by drone and we can also get improvised explosive devices delivered by drone, Cohen wryly stated. Does that thought scare you? How about the thought of an enterprising individual hacking your email account, holding your identity hostage and ransoming the account back to you for $100? Cohen calls this "virtual kidnapping." (The porn industry has already pioneered this practice through so-called "shaming schemes.")

Cohen also worried that we are developing a false sense of security online. Consider, for instance, "a supersurveillance state" like Iran that could trick people into believing that its Internet policy is democratic, when in reality the government would just be allowing public venting in order to collect more data on dissidents. Oppressive governments are "going to get savvy and develop two domestic policies," Cohen argued, one for the virtual world and one for the physical world. 

Governments of the future could also band together to censor the Web. In other words, Iran could censor negative information about Kim Jong-un. North Korea, in turn, would censor negative information about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

While that all sounds like a fairly dystopian future, Eric Schmidt jumped in to play the role of the optimist. Schmidt pointed out that for people in the developing world even a small amount of connectivity is revolutionary. In the developed world, we will have enormous digital enhancements that will help us in unimaginable ways. Driverless cars and cyber representatives in virtual space are just two examples.

And as for those evil-doers, their lives will become increasingly more dangerous and more complicated in a world of increased connectivity. 

"If I were an evil person," Schmidt argued, "I would be terrified of this new world because of the information that is being assembled." It will be very difficult for an evil-doer to go about their dirty work "without being found, prosecuted and put in jail for their evil activities," said Schmidt. 

In other words, if evil-doers want to achieve their goals, they will have to do it in a way that will ultimately leave some sort of digital trail. This creates more room for error. So consider the example of a naive 25 year-old terrorist who throws caution to the wind and calls his friend in Pakistan. He gets caught. But capturing this one individual also "makes it easier to unravel an entire network."

So in Schmidt's view, the impact of increased connectivity is a win-win. 

The terrorists and the drug cartels will have no place to hide. Meanwhile, a population that is inherently good -- they principally want education and safe water, as Schmidt points out -- will also want to report terrorists and drug cartels. And technology will offer them the tools to do so without the fear of reprisal. 

Watch Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen's exchange in the video here:

Image courtesy of Meghan Brosnan

To learn more about The Nantucket Project and how to attend the 2013 event visit nantucketproject.com.

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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