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Harnessing technology's transformative power for all

WHAT is technology? We often think of it as the new stuff like self-driving cars or voice assistants. It's that, but on a more fundamental level, it's what we humans create to help ourselves. It includes things that are so bound up in what it means to be human that we have stopped thinking of them as technology, and just see them as the way things are. It's things like language, clothes and shelter. So technology has really been around from the very start of human existence, enabling us to transform our surroundings to our benefit. At the same time, technology is also helping transform our lives, our enterprises and our future.

Technology transforms our lives because it provides access to opportunity. Something as basic as an Internet connection can mean a chance for an education or a better job. Google Station, our public WiFi program, is used by over eight million people every month in India to get online. One of them is Shrinath, a railway porter in Kerala, who used the free, high-speed WiFi at his station to study for and ace the entrance examinations to the Kerala civil service. That's just one example. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of Internet users grew from 360 million to 3.6 billion people. This is the biggest and fastest human migration ever known - from offline to online - and it is causing a massive explosion of economic opportunity and innovation across the world.

Technology transforms our businesses because it enables them to scale and grow. Any company can now become a global enterprise using online platforms. At Google, we have been fortunate enough to have built seven products with over a billion users each. Millions of businesses and people use these open online platforms to easily create and distribute products, services and content. Every business can be an online business, and even the most traditional industry can be a digital one. By using digital advertising, Hai Sia, a family-run seafood supplier in Singapore, found new ways to get more customers and grow their business.


It's not just about digitising existing businesses. Technology is also creating new kinds of entrepreneurs and industries. YouTube creators, for example, run businesses that were born on an online platform and that could not have existed before the Internet. By digitising the food delivery business in Indonesia, GO-JEK has transformed how existing restaurants operate. But it has also facilitated the emergence of a new industry of home cooks as restaurateurs. Freed from the costly requirements of renting a restaurant space and hiring staff, people can run profitable businesses right from their kitchens at home. A restaurant today may not be a place where you sit down and order food. It could be a homemaker cooking an order received through a mobile app. Lastly, technology can transform the future because as it progresses, we are using it to solve global problems. There is a major shift in technology every 10 years or so, and each shift has brought new solutions. In the early 1980s, the PC revolution made computers part of people's lives and changed how we work. In the 1990s, the Internet transformed how we find information. Then, in the mid-2000s, smartphones brought all that knowledge into our pockets.

Now we are shifting into artificial intelligence. What excites me most are what our youth are doing with the latest technology. Teenagers are using artificial intelligence to help them create programs that detect breast cancer and identify plant diseases more accurately. If our kids can use technology to fight cancer and conserve the environment, imagine what governments can do if they use artificial intelligence, as one tool among many, to improve their citizens' lives. In Singapore, for example, we can use it to address complex national issues such as an ageing population or healthcare. Too often, our response to the big, daunting shifts in technology is to do nothing, or to resist until we are reassured that they do no harm. But the world doesn't stand still for anyone. If we refuse to engage with technological transformation, others will. We need to embrace technological progress, and those of us who are in a position to do so need to encourage and enable others as well, through thoughtful government policies and responsible business practices.

The world would be a very different and much poorer place today if our ancestors had given up on fire or language or the wheel, just because they were afraid of their transformative power. The reaction to technology we don't know how to use well isn't to stop innovating. The right reaction is to work harder and innovate even better so we can make technology work for everyone.

  • The writer is vice-president, Next Billion Users, at Google. He was the keynote speaker at Smart Nation Innovations (SNI) Week opening symposium on June 5.

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