Author Archives: James Manyika

A conversation with Thomas Friedman about AI

Technology has an unmistakable impact on society — the way we work, learn and play have all changed significantly over the past decade. As SVP of Technology and Society, part of my work at Google is connecting people and ideas to help shape the future of our most ambitious technology and its impact on society, and to do it responsibly.

An important part of that is talking to and learning from experts in a variety of fields and disciplines. Recently I sat down with a brilliant friend, New York Times columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman, to compare notes and discuss some big questions on our minds.

A behind-the-scenes view of Thomas Friedman and James Manyika filming their conversation, with glass windows and greenery from Google's Bay View campus in the background. Thomas, at left, is smiling and facing James, who is motioning with his hands and looking at Thomas. A person operating a camera is filming them in the foreground.

Thomas Friedman and James Manyika in conversation at Google’s Bay View campus.

We had a lot to cover, as it had been a couple of years since our last such in-person conversation due to the pandemic. Much of our discussion focused on AI and how it affects society, but we also discussed what Tom has been observing, how we as a society shape technology, and why we think this moment in time is an inflection point akin to the printing press or the industrial revolution.

To close our conversation, I asked Tom what keeps him optimistic about the future. His answer reinforces my belief that getting technology right is a collective responsibility involving the whole of society — from open, honest conversations like this to better understand the opportunities and challenges, to defining policy, and responsibly creating new and societally-beneficial applications.

I always learn something new when I have these conversations with Tom, and I’m excited to share more insights and dialogues on YouTube soon.

Visit YouTubeto see more of James’ conversation with Thomas Friedman.

Our commitment on using AI to accelerate progress on global development goals

I joined Google earlier this year to lead a new function: Technology & Society. Our aim is to help connect research, people and ideas across Google to shape the future of our technology innovations and their impact on society for the better. A key area of focus is AI, a field I have studied and immersed myself in over the years. I recently met with a team at the Google AI Center in Ghana that is using advanced technology to address an ancient problem: detecting locust outbreaks which threaten food security and livelihoods for millions of people. And in India and Bangladesh, our Crisis Response teams are using our machine-learning-based forecasting to provide over 360 million people with alerts about upcoming floods.

Efforts like these make me optimistic about how AI can contribute to solving societal problems. They also reinforce how high the stakes are for people everywhere, especially as global forces threaten the progress we’ve made on health, prosperity and environmental issues.

AI for the Global Goals

As the United Nations General Assembly begins, the world will come together to discuss issues of global importance, including assessing progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which provide a roadmap on economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. While it’s clear the global community has made significant strides in meeting the 17 interlinked goals since their adoption by 193 countries, challenges persist in every country. Currently, no country is on track to meet all the goals by 2030.

From the launch of the SDGs in 2015, Google has believed in their importance and looked for ways to support progress. We know that advanced technology, such as AI, can be a powerful tool in advancing these goals. Research that I co-led before joining Google found AI could contribute to progress on all the SDGs — a finding confirmed by the UN. In 2018 Google launched AI for Social Good, focusing applied research and grantmaking efforts on some of the most intractable issues. But we know more needs to be done.

So today we’re expanding our efforts with AI for the Global Goals, which will bring together research, technology and funding to accelerate progress on the SDGs. This commitment will include $25 million to support NGOs and social enterprises working with AI to accelerate progress towards these goals. Based on what we’ve learned so far, we believe that with the AI capabilities and financial support we will provide, grantees can cut in half the time or cost to achieve their goals. In addition to funding, where appropriate, we’ll provide Fellowships, where teams of Google employees work alongside organizations for up to six months. Importantly, projects will be open-sourced so other organizations can build on the work. All of Google’s work and contributions will be guided by our Responsible AI Principles.

Since 2018, we’ve been focusing applied research and grantmaking efforts on some of the most intractable issues with over 50 organizations in countries ranging from Japan to Kenya to Brazil. We’ve supported organizations making progress on emissions monitoring, antimicrobial image analysis and mental health for LGBTQ+ youth. Working side-by-side with these organizations has shown us the creative ways a thriving ecosystem of companies, nonprofits and universities can use AI. We think we can use the same model to help countries make progress on the SDGs.

A critical time for global progress

COVID-19, global conflict, and climate change have set us back. Fewer people have the opportunity to move out of poverty, inequitable access to healthcare and education continues, gender inequality persists, and environmental threats pose immediate and long-term risks. We know that AI and other advanced technology can help tackle these setbacks. For example, in a significant development for biology and human health, DeepMind used AI to predict 200 million protein structures. They open-sourced the structures in partnership with EMBL-EBI, giving over 500,000 biologists tools to accelerate work on drug discovery, treatment and therapies — thereby making it possible to tackle many of the world’s neglected diseases.

As someone who has spent the last several decades working at the nexus of technology and societal good, it matters deeply that progress here will benefit communities everywhere. No single organization alone will develop and deploy all the solutions we’ll need; we all need to do our part. We’re looking forward to continuing to partner with experts around the world and learning what we can accomplish together.

How tech can support transformational growth in Africa

This week, I was privileged to be in Kigali, Rwanda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (‘CHOGM’) - a forum that brings together government, business leaders and NGOs from around the world to discuss how to improve the lives of the over 2.5 billion people living in the 54 independent countries that make up the Commonwealth.

Africa is facing multiple challenges. While Covid was first and foremost a health crisis, the economic impact continues to be severe for parts of the continent. The war in Ukraine has added further pressure on supply chains and food security. And Africa’s rapid population growth - 60% of the population will be under 24 by 2025 - creates a further pressing need to generate economic opportunity and ensure people and families can earn a living.

Despite the challenges ahead, the mood at CHOGM was optimistic, focusing on the collaboration and solutions that can help Africa’s economic recovery. For me, harnessing technology is key to that.

I grew up in Zimbabwe, then a Commonwealth country, and discovered the possibilities of the world of programming as a highschooler. Since then I’ve always been fascinated by the role technology can play in creating opportunities and helping to solve large-scale societal problems. My position at Google allows me to focus on how technology can benefit society, and I feel fortunate that it’s taken me back to Africa after just five months in the role.

Google first bet on Africa with the investment in Seacom cable in about 2005: I remember hearing about it from my friends at Google at the time. Two years later, Google opened offices on the continent, and has been a partner in Africa’s economic growth and digital transformation ever since - working with local governments, policymakers, educators and entrepreneurs. Our mission in Africa is to unlock the benefits of the digital economy to everyone - providing helpful products, programmes and investments.

Africa’s internet economy has the potential to grow to $180 billion by 2025 - 5.2% of the continent’s GDP - bringing prosperity, opportunity and growth. African governments and businesses must turn that opportunity into a reality: integrating technology into the economy, ensuring no one is left behind, and emerging stronger from the current challenges.

Ensuring affordable internet access

Most crucial to this is affordable internet access - a precondition for digital transformation, but still a barrier today. Across Africa, only 18% of households have an internet connection, and data costs remain a major obstacle. By actively promoting infrastructure investments, including in rural areas, Governments can support people to get online and harness the economic growth and benefits that will come with that.

Google is already working in partnership with African governments to do this. We’ve enabled over 100 million Africans to access the internet for the first time through our affordable Android devices, and plan to invest $1 billion over the next 5 years in projects that will help enable Africa’s digital transformation, including our state-of-the-art Equiano subsea cable.

The cable, which lands in Namibia in the next few weeks, will provide twenty times more network capacity by connecting Africa with Europe. It will run through South Africa, Namibia, Togo, Nigeria and St Helena, enabling internet speeds up to five times faster and lowering connectivity costs by up to 21%, in turn supporting growth and jobs.

Investing in people

Those accessing the internet need to be able to use it and transform their lives leveraging it. Working with tech companies and NGOs to foster digital skills developments, governments can ensure people can participate fully online.

Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, made a commitment in 2017 to train 10 million Africans in digital skills. To date, Google has trained more than 6 million people across Africa through Grow with Google in partnership with local governments, and given $20 million to non-profits helping Africans develop their digital skills. Moreover, Google has committed to certifying 100,000 developers - and so far has certified more than 80,000. Last year, a Google study showed the developer ecosystem in Africa is growing. There are nearly 716,000 professional developers across Africa - of which 21% are women; numbers we hope to contribute to.

Investing in startups

Alongside digital skills, governments need to encourage entrepreneurs and startups - a crucial part of Africa’s economic growth and jobs creation. There has never been a shortage of entrepreneurs in Africa - what is needed are the tools, including technology, and financing to enable them.

Last year, we announced an Africa Investment Fund to support startup growth across Africa. Through the Fund, we invest $50 million in startups like SafeBoda and Carry1st, and provide Google’s people, products and networks to help them build meaningful products for their communities. This is on top of our existing work on the Startups Accelerator Africa, which has provided more than 80 African startups with equity-free finance, working space and expert advisors over the last three years. We also launched a Black Founders Fund in 2021, supporting Black African Founders like Shecluded, a digital financial growth resource and service startup for women.

Using technological innovation to solve systemic challenges

Advances in technology are increasingly enabling solutions to development challenges, and with 300 million more people coming online in Africa over the next five years, the possibilities are endless. Digital finance, for example, can be used to address the barriers preventing nearly a billion African women from banking - while advances in AI have made it possible for Google to Translate more languages, including Luganda - spoken by 20 million people here in Rwanda and in neighboring Uganda.

Technology offers Africa a tremendous opportunity for growth, prosperity and opportunity. I’m hopeful that working in partnership, we can continue to make an impact and build on Africa’s digital revolution.