Google’s chief executive has warned politicians against knee-jerk regulation of artificial intelligence, arguing that existing rules may be sufficient to govern the new technology.
Sundar Pichai said that AI required “smart regulation” that balanced innovation with protecting citizens.
While many regulators are more focused on tackling Google over antitrust than AI at the moment, the company is keen to avoid repeating some of the tech industry’s past mistakes by working in “partnership between government and businesses”.
In an interview, Mr Pichai suggested looking to existing laws to govern how AI is used “rather than assuming that everything you have to do is new”.
When new regulations are required, they should be applied to particular sectors and industries, such as healthcare and energy, he said, rather than through a blanket vetting of algorithms, as some politicians have suggested.
“It is such a broad cross-cutting technology, so it’s important to look at [regulation] more in certain vertical situations,” Mr Pichai said.
“There are areas where we need to do the research before we know what are the right kinds of approaches we need to take,” he said, citing aspects of AI that have caught politicians’ attention, including bias, safety and explainability.
“Rather than rushing into it in a way that prevents innovation and research, you actually need to solve some of the difficult problems.”
Mr Pichai spoke after meeting European politicians including Finnish prime minister, Antti Rinne. The Google chief unveiled a series of announcements, including 18 new clean energy deals, a €3bn investment to expand its data centres across Europe and a $2m grant to train European workers in digital skills.
After attacks from regulators across Europe and around the world over allegations of anti-competitive behaviour and privacy infringement, Mr Pichai hopes to get ahead of any crackdown on AI.
“We are for sure definitely approaching things more deliberately than before,” he said. “Over the past few years, all of us have learnt that technology can have unintended consequences.” After publishing a set of AI principles last year, Mr Pichai said he would be “happy to evolve them over time as we gain more insights both internally and from externally”.
But he also insisted that, despite what many in Washington and Brussels say, competition is alive and well in the online advertising industry. “It’s a very vibrant market, very dynamic.”
Analysts have estimated that more than a third of digital advertising spending goes to Google. But Mr Pichai pointed to the emergence of new entrants such as Amazon, whose rapid growth in digital advertising many on Wall Street fear is coming at Google’s expense.
“Amazon is a very formidable company. They are making great strides in advertising,” he said.
Mr Pichai suggested that Google could move more quickly than Amazon in one area of intense scrutiny this week: reducing its carbon emissions.
He said that Google could achieve zero emissions by 2030, one of the key demands of climate protesters, including a group of its own employees. That date would put it on a more ambitious timeline than Amazon, which on Thursday set a 2040 target for reaching zero carbon emissions.
“It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me,” Mr Pichai said when asked about the protesters’ 2030 target. “We want to be ambitious in how we think about it. It definitely seems the kind of timeline by which we want to accomplish those things.”
But one area where Mr Pichai insisted that Silicon Valley should not compete was security. This month, Apple accused Google of “stoking fear” when it revealed a sophisticated hacking attack against iPhones.
“It’s important that as big companies, we all work together to help improve security for all our users,” Mr Pichai said. “We provide services for Apple products as well. I don’t see it as their users or our users. We all strive to work together to create a better internet.”