When Sundar Pichai was growing up in Chennai, south-east India, he had to make regular trips to the hospital to pick up his mother’s blood-test results. It took an hour and 20 minutes by bus, and when he got there he would have to stand and queue for an hour, often to be told the results weren’t ready.
It took five years for his family to get their first rotary telephone, when Pichai was 12. It was a landmark moment. “It would take me 10 minutes to call the hospital, and maybe they’d tell me, ‘No, come back tomorrow’,” Pichai says. “We waited a long time to get a refrigerator, too, and I saw how my mom’s life changed: she didn’t need to cook every day, she could spend more time with us. So there is a side of me that has viscerally seen how technology can make a difference, and I still feel it. I feel the optimism and energy, and the moral imperative to accelerate that progress.”
Now 45, Pichai is a tall, slight man whose voice is a soft harmony of Indian and American accents. Sitting in his office in a quiet corner of Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, California, he speaks thoughtfully, often pausing to find the right phrase. The room houses a few pieces of designer furniture, and the requisite treadmill desk – the perfect metaphor for the pace Pichai has to keep up with. Yet his is a disarmingly calm presence, a world away from the prevailing stereotype of the macho-genius tech CEO; when Pichai got the job, one Google employee was quoted as saying: “All the assholes have left.”
When Google restructured its sprawling business in 2015, it created a parent company, Alphabet, as a home for its more experimental projects – space exploration, anti-mortality – leaving its eye-wateringly lucrative consumer products with Google. Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, moved to Alphabet, leaving Pichai as the popular choice for CEO: he had already proved himself with his work on the web browser Chrome and Android, Google’s ubiquitous smartphone brand.
Compared with Page and Brin, and former CEO Eric Schmidt, Pichai is a modest and low-key figurehead. “I don’t do that many interviews,” he says as we sit down in his “huddle” meeting room. But the more we talk, the more it becomes clear that his appointment may be Google’s shrewdest move yet: is he the perfect second generation chief exec? He certainly has a lot in his Gmail inbox. The catalogue of Google controversies is now so big it warrants its own Wikipedia entry, running from tax avoidance and anti-trust issues to hosting extremist content and recent claims of sexist employment practices (it currently faces a class action over pay discrimination).
Earlier this year, Pichai announced a major conceptual shift for the company, moving from “mobile first” to “artificial intelligence [AI] first”. This puts the focus firmly on machine learning, developing voice-recognition products such as Google Home, a smart speaker that responds to verbal requests to play music or control lighting; and, increasingly, visual recognition.>
In the Valley, people are obsessed with the pace of change. It’s tough to get right. We rush sometimes, and can misfire
“In an AI-first world, interactions become even more seamless and natural,” Pichai explains. “So, with voice, you can speak to things, and we are working on Google Lens, so your computer can see things the way you see them.” Lens, due to launch later this year, will add visual recognition to smartphone cameras: point it at a restaurant, and it will find reviews online. Pichai also cites language translation as a compelling example of advanced AI; instant translation, both verbal and visual, will be possible with a high degree of accuracy within a few years, he says.
But this is where Google’s sell becomes tricky. Many developments in its services – tailoring ads according to personal data, using someone’s location to present local information – are viewed as invasions of privacy. The company has been the target of intense scrutiny on this score, particularly since 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA and MI5 had been accessing personal information via technology companies.
With the application of AI, those concerns move into a whole new realm. In 2013, Google bought DeepMind, the powerful UK-founded AI company, with the aim of developing its capabilities further; but there are profound questions around the safety and ethics of creating machines that can think and act for themselves. Does Pichai acknowledge these concerns? “I recognise that, in the Valley, people are obsessed with the pace of technological change,” he says. “It’s tough to get that part right… We rush sometimes, and can misfire for an average person. As humans, I don’t know whether we want change that fast – I don’t think we do.”
Another frequently raised concern is Google’s seemingly unstoppable growth: a year ago, it unveiled an initiative to reach “the next billion” smartphone users, targeting India with a handful of tools designed for mobiles with slow internet connections, including a version of YouTube.
Isn’t this a kind of technological imperialism, bulldozing a way into the developing world? Pichai is prepared for this argument. “I want this to be a global company,” he argues. “But it is also important that we are a local company… We don’t build only Google products and services – we build an underlying platform, too, so that when you enable smartphones to work well in a country, you also bootstrap the entrepreneurial system there. The two go hand in hand.”
His ambition is to make Android so cheap that it can be used as part of a $30 smartphone; Pichai has said before that he can see “a clear path” to five billion users. “We want to democratise technology,” he says. “Once everybody has access to a computer and connectivity, then search works the same, whether you are a Nobel laureate or just a kid with a computer.”
By any measure, Pichai’s journey to the top of Google is a remarkable one. He was born into a modest middle-class family in Chennai, where he lived in a two-room apartment with his mother, a stenographer; father, an electrical engineer; and younger brother. The family had no car; sometimes all four of them would travel on the family moped. Despite Pichai’s shyness, he was always confident and extremely determined, says Professor Sanat Kumar Roy, who taught him for four years at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, where he studied metallurgical engineering: “I think he had some genius lurking in him.”
After graduating in 1993, Pichai won a scholarship for a master’s in materials science at Stanford. His father, who earned 3,000 rupees (£63) a month, withdrew nearly a year’s salary from the family savings to pay for his son’s flight to San Francisco. “When I landed, my host family picked me up and driving back it looked so brown,” he remembers. “She corrected me: ‘California is golden, not brown!’”