In an age of online security breaches and privacy concerns, what does the chairman of Google worry about?
One item on his list is which products Google shouldn't create because they violate privacy, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt told a University of Minnesota audience Wednesday.
"We created a high-quality face-recognition system that would take pictures of a room and identify all the people in the room," Schmidt said. "It had a 50 percent chance of identifying you if it was a front-on shot, and if there were at least 13 pictures of you on the Internet -- and that's everyone, via Facebook, or university bios or other innocent things. We decided not to release that product."
That's a day in the life of Schmidt, who after a decade at the helm of Google as CEO is worth $6.2 billion, making him the 136th-richest man on Earth, according to Forbes magazine. He was in Minnesota to encourage the use of Google's online software for business and education.
The U, an early adopter of Google software, has 90,000 users of Google's online applications, second only to Arizona State, said Robert Jones, the University of Minnesota's senior vice president for system academic administration.
Google's applications store consumer data online, and that's better for users, Schmidt said. "Your data is safer with us than with you, given your propensity not to back up your hard drive. When you use Google Docs, your information is stored in our data centers, where it's heavily backed up."
Speaking to a small audience at the university's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, he talked about Google's role in technology and society, including the proliferation of smartphones, an area where Google's Android operating system is a major player.
"The world has 4 billion cellphones and 7 billion people, and we'll probably get to 6 billion phones. These are voices we've not heard, in languages few understand. Do they care about Lady Gaga as much as we do? We don't know. But the arrival of another couple billion people into the human conversation is really something."
As chairman, Schmidt remains Google's public face. In September he was grilled in Congress, where he denied allegations that Google has become dominant in Internet search and smartphone operating systems, and that it gives search preference to its own online services over those of others.
In an interview Wednesday, he offered this defense: "The future of these things is not up to us. The European Union and the U.S. governments are investigating, but they have not come to us and said what it is they want us to do."
Schmidt's influence is felt internationally. Earlier this month he was in Taiwan, saying he was pleased with Google's cellphone business in China. That was a little more than a year after Google rerouted its Chinese search operations through Hong Kong to avoid Chinese censorship.
Asked how Google's cellphone venture will fare with Chinese censors, Schmidt said the company's Android operating system "doesn't track personal information in China that could be used against someone" and that Google would refuse any Chinese request that it do so.
"China is fighting a losing battle to control expression by Chinese citizens," he said.
But collecting treasure troves of personal information, in a way that allows individuals to remain anonymous, interests Schmidt immensely.
"I'm interested in what to do with all the information that people are now generating," Schmidt said. "If people leave their phones on while they're driving in traffic, we can use modern technology to predict where the next traffic jam will occur."
Schmidt, who is writing a book about technology, invited the U audience to think back with him to the moment when smartphones began to revolutionize modern life.
'The new addiction'
"When did we lose control over our lives?" he asked. "When did it start that we had to turn on our mobile device as we woke up, and check e-mail as we went to sleep? This is the new addiction. It's a mild addiction, but a pretty serious one.''
Later Wednesday, Schmidt appeared with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak at the small business incubator CoCo Minneapolis, based in the former Minneapolis Grain Exchange, and visited with several local technology entrepreneurs.
Schmidt praised the incubator concept, in which entrepreneurs meet to share office space and ideas, and the city's role in helping promote it.
Schmidt said it is a better alternative to people working alone out of their homes.
"Distance-working is a disaster," Schmidt said. "People want to work in a group. People are social."
Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553