Smith: Digital natives leverage technology in a way never possible before

atie McLean | Staff PhotographerMegan Smith, vice president of Google [x] and a lifelong Chautauquan, speaks about young people and global collaboration during  her morning lecture  Monday in the  Amphitheater.
Katie McLean | Staff Photographer
Megan Smith, vice president of Google [x] and a lifelong Chautauquan, speaks about young people and global collaboration during her morning lecture Monday in the Amphitheater.

Though Megan Smith’s current place of residence is in Silicon Valley, the vice president of Google[x] has her roots on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution.

“It’s nice to be home,” she told the crowd at the Monday morning lecture in the Amphitheater. “Traveling with all of you has been an incredible experience.”

Once a participant in the Chautauqua Boys’ and Girls’ Club, Smith was back to jumpstart the second week of morning lectures with the theme of “The Next Greatest Generation.”

“I love that we use the word ‘next,’ ” she said. “Because we’re assuming there has been greatness before. And I think all youth cultures bring something astonishing to the world.”

Now vice president of Google[x], Google’s top-secret project development branch, Smith has helped develop several technological innovations, including Google Earth and the self-driving car.

She described “The Greatest Generation” as those living through the Great Depression and World War II — they were faced with “incredible adversity” but managed to move past it.

“People rose to the occasion,” Smith said. “That generation is characterized by deep service, by amazing ingenuity, by endurance, by creativity, by collaboration and by incredible appreciation for each other.”

She told the audience the story of Bletchley Park, the site just outside of London where a group of 10,000 code crackers managed to decipher Nazi messages, shaving time off the war and effectively saving lives.

Smith said their resourcefulness and creativity helped launched the Colossus, the first computing system in Bletchley Park, which later helped influence the roots of Google.

“It was astonishing, heroic engineering,” she said.

She compared the heroics of past engineers and mathematicians to the potential of the next generation.

“What’s so exciting about the millennials and the digital natives … is that the young people are able to leverage technology in a way that’s never been possible before,” she said. “They’re the same youth that have existed every generation, with passion to contribute and communicate.”

The next generation is eager to serve in as many ways as possible, she said. This is evident in the numbers of Ivy League graduates who are volunteering for Teach for America, a program that places outstanding college graduates in low-income public school districts for two years. It is also displayed at University of California, Berkeley, where the global poverty and practice minor has one of the school’s highest enrollment rates.

Global service is important, too. Smith told the audience about a Department of Defense-funded startup center in Herat, Afghanistan, in which young computer scientists from Herat University have started six new companies. Other such startups are springing up all across the globe, from Nairobi, Kenya to Buffalo, N.Y.

“Every country … is starting to have some of these people,” she said. “And that’s exciting, because they will change their countries.”

Another example of connectivity on the local level is TEDx, a community-based version of the popular Ted Talks. As a part of the Google Ideas team, Smith organized a TEDx panel discussing how to stop extremist groups from recruiting young people. The talk featured former members of al-Qaeda and Los Angeles gangs, as well as violent crime victims.

“Now all of them are digitally connected, and they continue to collaborate globally to work on this problem,” Smith said. “That couldn’t have happened before.”

Another global initiative Smith worked on was the Malala Fund, named after Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year old Pakistani school girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for attending school after she was forbidden to do so. The fund gives grants to help further education for women and girls in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

Malala just gave her first grant in April to help 40 girls get out of domestic service and into school.

Even after this huge accomplishment, Malala said, “OK, I’m doing 40 girls, now help me do 40 million.”

A self-proclaimed “card-carrying optimist,” Smith said that she is encouraged by the two ways she has observed the next generation evolving: through networking and through openness.

“They know how to quickly get information from each other,” she said. “So the rate and the scale and the connectivity is huge.”

Another exciting aspect for Smith is the potential for a radical shift in education.

“We have so many problems in education today,” Smith said. “If you could take a teacher from the Victorian era and bring them forward today, they would still recognize our classroom.”

Smith is excited to see what she calls “disruptive change” happening in education in the next decade. In a “flipped classroom,” for instance, a teacher assigns the class a video of a lecture to watch at home, and the students come in the following day to work together on the problems.

Free education online is quickly changing and challenging the decades-old notion that a teacher is simply a lecturer in a classroom. Sal Kahn helped to revolutionize learning when, in 2006, he posted teaching videos online for his cousins. Today, his Kahn Academy has given more than 240 million online tutorials, covering everything from economics to organic chemistry to art history.

Smith ended the lecture by explaining her “moonshot thinking,” in which she and her colleagues brainstorm possible ways to solve global problems using breakthrough technology. They recently launched a project called Loon, in which 30 balloons are hovering over remote areas in New Zealand to give the people living there Internet access.

Smith then modeled a pair of Google Glasses for the audience, a new product that allows users to search the Web, take photos and videos and view data — all through a pair of eyeglasses.

Smith believes that the Institution’s founders are perfect examples of moonshot thinking.

“I think [John Heyl] Vincent and [Lewis] Miller, when they founded Chautauqua, understood all the things I’m talking about,” she said. “The idea of the [Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle] is an idea that everyone would have education. They understood that networking a community, bringing ideas, and the talent and diversity of all of us was really important.”


Q: Given your experience with technologies and all of this collaboration that is relatively boundless, what do you see as technology’s impact on the role of national governments?

A: That’s an incredibly exciting question. I don’t think we know the answer to the question. I feel like we’re in the Model T, Model A beginnings of that. We’ve seen with elections some of the uses of technologies for voting at the last election. But one of my favorite things that we did — there’s a thing called Silicon Valley Comes to the UK. And a whole bunch of us go together to England, and we go to London and Cambridge and Oxford, and we work with students and we work with parliament and we work there with a range of people. Two times ago, Prime Minister [David] Cameron put out a call to the youth and it said, ‘Any university students or anyone who wanted to join,’ but they asked the universities to have an “App-athon.” They released a whole bunch of government data and then they had the kids, the youth, write apps. They came up with fabulous apps and we did a contest: The top 10 winners got to come to 10 Downing St. with us. Some of my favorite ones — like one of them was called “Eye Sore.” So, those kids just said, “You would see something that was a problem in your community, an eye sore, you would take a photo of it, you would post in a community-collaborative place, and then anyone could go fix the problem.” You could go fix it and get credit and everyone would see. A company could pay money and would get grant credit, or the community could vote the worst problems up and ask the town council to fix the top five. It’s just a great idea. Another app that I loved was one around hospitals. So the kids, they took all the data they got from the government about the hospitals — what was this hospital good at, that hospital good at? So, if you were in an emergency situation, you could use this app to figure out which was the best hospital near you to go to and what were the lines. So the real time data that you can have there. The thing that I always think is the government is not in charge of inventing and innovating; the government is the enabler, the platform. I think the more people act like Cameron and say, “Hey community, ask not what your country can do for you, but what can you do for your country? How do I help you?” And having people do the innovation with you is, I think, the way to approach this.

Q: Well the government is also responsible for security, so this is the inevitable question: Will you comment on the NSA data collection and what Google’s role is, if any, in what the questioner thinks of as a loss of civil liberties?

A: This is an incredibly important question. This is such a hard thing to evolve technology, we have to do it together and sometimes people cross boundaries and sometimes they don’t. Specifically in terms of Google, I’m not an expert; I’m not on the privacy team, I’m not a security expert so I’m not working on that; but we have really strict policies about peoples’ data. I mean, all our company relies on is trust with our users. And so we have nothing if we don’t have our trust with our users. We have a long tradition of pushing back on requests from the government for information. Often the government will come with very broad requests and ask for all of the data for such and such or this and that. What we always do is we try to narrow it very specifically, what is it that you’re asking for and why? And do you have a court order? That’s the way that we’ve handled that. There are security reasons, there are criminal reasons, there are many reasons why people legitimately need the information, but we want to narrow it to very specific information. We also have a second part of that, again back to open

, as transparent as we possibly can. So we’re pushing very hard to try to get the ability to publish how many requests we get. We’ve been able to publish the criminal — the information about how many requests we get for information that has to do with criminal-related things. We want that for security. I think all the tech companies are working together to get that to be releasable.

Q: Your description of the university environment, where now we can make things with having lectures in another environment, provokes several folks with the humanities background to wonder whether or not as an engineer you aren’t over-enamored with making things. Where does the study of Ancient Greece come into the university environment in your model? And, then a follow-up question, because I think it does in fact follow up, what happens to the art of conversation in all of this?

A: Exactly. I actually think that one of the most important things about university is that liberal arts experience, where you walk into that class with a very strong opinion, you experience a lot of debate and you walk out with a different opinion. When I think about the physical spaces of universities as well as the digital spaces — say video conferences — I think that it’s not only lab and robotics and chemistry and those places. But it’s also places for debate, places for theater, places for all the liberal arts traditions that would be there for art, for painting and everything we have up on the hill should be physically in the universities with the summer school programs.

Q: In light of the progress on LGBT rights in our country, how do you see the Web and social media bringing enlightenment to the rest of the world?

A: It’s interesting because Tom mentioned that when I ran PlanetOut — it was the gay community online in the Web — we got, as Tom said, 2 percent hate mail everyday; we got 40 percent love mail, but we did get the 2 percent hate mail. I am married to another woman, we have two children — I think that civil rights is a continuum, we’re on a path and I always teach our kids about all the other groups who have come to the table. And in debating with Meg Whitman, who had voted for Prop 8, I told her that she was having a George Wallace moment and that she would apologize some day. And in fact, she called my partner, Kara, very recently and apologized. In fact, at Bletchley Park, in the Alan Turing section — I don’t know if you know Alan Turing was put — one of the most brilliant, Einstein-level thinkers in our world — under house arrest after the war, after saving millions and millions of people with his brilliant mind because he was gay and was considered a risk and was forced to take estrogen shots and eventually killed himself. There’s an amazing apology in the Turing section from England. I think the world spins forward; we’re getting there. Technology is a very important enabler, especially in the LGBT minority. Children are often not in the same minority as their parents; that’s not true for most minorities, and so the Web has been instrumental for gay people in helping them find other people and find out that even though we’re a small minority in the world, we exist and we’re normal and there’s ways to come out. I think that we’re on a path, an exciting path. And I’m very excited about where we got with the Supreme Court this week.

Q: Is there a connection between technology and spirituality? Then, the follow up to that is, how do you see the organized church changing by virtue of technology?

A: Sure. One of my favorite — I got to go the [Delft University of Technology] once and it was a conference, it reminded me of Chautauqua so much. It was a conference that was organized by the department of religion in the university and the department of engineering, and they created a conversation on stage where they would choose two words like “responsibility,” “creativity.” You would have a discussion, an engineering and religious and spirituality discussion. Everything that we make and create and that we work on is from humans, and humans are spiritual. … I think there is a huge place in the Internet for people who are exploring religious communities. I also think there’s parts of the Web that have to do with organizing. So simple stuff, like making it easy for groups to come together, and so you see that with religious communities coming to together and using it even just logistically for people to collaborate well. And, also just for home outreach, people who can’t be with you. One of my favorite things we did recently was, the Dalai Lama was invited to Desmond Tutu’s birthday, but he couldn’t get a visa. So a bunch of engineers scrambled and went and helped set up what are called Google Hangouts — so there’s this fabulous online, if you want to watch it, fabulous Skype call of this conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu for his 80th birthday and the Dalai Lama making fun of the Chinese government, saying, “They think I’m an evil enemy.” It’s so funny, but it’s cute. You see, maybe it has to do with some authenticity from the spiritual leaders that we have and getting to see more of them in a way. There’s a lot of opportunities for religion, extraordinary opportunities for community and religion.

Q: We had a speaker last week who talked in evolutionary terms about how we are now, he would argue, not later, we are now cyber-sapiens. That is that we’re evolving in that cyberspace context and technology is now part of who we are, and we’re on a pathway. If that’s true, what do you see as the future of artificial intelligence?

A: I’m not an artificial intelligence expert, but I do think that we’re adding to ourselves this sort of silicon-based things in ways that are pretty interesting. Kara often teases me that we’re actually all lizards at Google and that we’re aliens and that we’re building Skynet and these kinds of things. I love the science-fiction writers because they help see different kinds of futures, some good and bad, and that’s very helpful. What I find, back to Pierre Omidyar’s point from eBay on people being good, that when the real technology comes it’s different from that scary image usually, for example, robots. We have these scary images from science fiction, but actually the self-driving car is really a robot. I think that it will come in a human way, in a way that is useful to us and back and forth. I don’t know enough about artificial intelligence; I think that it’s possible and kind of anything’s possible kind of realm.

Q: How old should a child be before he or she has their first smartphone, computer? Are there age limitations on this?

A: Do they have your phone or their phone? I think there’s a range. I think you have to go with your gut. In our family, Louie, who’s 11, has a smartphone and he’s good with it; although, he’s always on Instagram. And Alex, who’s 8, does not have one. He’d probably lose it. He wouldn’t mean to, but he would just accidentally lose it. He has access to that stuff, so I think there’s a point where you feel like the kid might mostly not lose it. That might be an okay time to give it to them. But, I do think exposing them to technologies earlier, the earliest you can is good. Back to open and transparent, educating them about what’s out there as soon as you can. If they’re going to be online, just give them the tools, tell them what’s there and help them learn. One of my favorite things being worked on right now — Esther Majewski is one of the best English teachers I know in high schools, and she’s working on a class for freshman with Stanford [University] that I hope could be rolled out called “Writing for Web.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if all freshmen in high school took a class about reading and writing on the Web, and they could do their same regular English writing: long-form essay, blogging, short-form tweeting, what does all this stuff mean, and we really taught kids in a transparent way about that. I think it would be helpful.

Q: Can young people spend too much time on electronics? Are there any disadvantages or downsides?

A: Yes, they can spend way too much time. Also, what I’ve learned with our kids, even television itself — if they’re just flipping channels, they will land on the fast cartoons, they’re usually not so great, they have terrible representation of girls, etc. So, if I just change the channel on them and just require them to watch something different, a couple of seconds of complaining and then they’re interested. If you have that energy, first off, to make sure that what they’re watching when they’re doing that or what they’re doing online, don’t let them do the stuff that’s just a waste of their time. Get them into some more interesting stuff. One of things I forgot to mention is that we had an engineer in Vietnam just visiting recently and he found that they’re teaching computer science from second grade in Vietnam. Second-grade kids know how to read somewhat and so they could learn to program. If you have a second grader, get them using Scratch or Blockley or any of these things online where they can start to make stuff. Have them do more of that and less of Angry Birds. Not zero Angry Birds because they’re fun, but do some more of that. The other thing is get them outside. The last thing I’ll say is, my friend John Hanke, who co-created Google Earth, got tired of watching his 13-year-old sitting on the couch. He actually invented a new game on Google Earth called Ingress; you can’t play it without moving. You have to go around; it’s a little bit like Risk, you’re capturing land and it’s become a cult-like thing. You’re playing against real people in the world, and you have to run around to do it. Let’s also evolve the technologies to help the kids do the things we need them to do.

Q: This is another follow up to that same point. Are you concerned the constant use of apps technology encourages a lazy brain; that is, are we discouraging knowledge about research and actual maps?

A: We got to talk to Henry Kissinger once, and he said he uses Google News. He said that this was one of his worries: That for him, he said it was so important to study all of these books and develop structures. You couldn’t remember everything, so you had to figure out how things were related. I listened to him, and I understood what he was saying, but at the same time I felt like people could do that with the digital technologies. They might not memorize everything, but I think you begin to develop a structure of where things are on the web, what sites are good and what’s there. So they’re doing the same kind of thing, but with a digital library for a digital set of people. I think back to my point again about getting second graders programming or doing real things, I think you can do too much. There can be too much consumption. I always tell Louie and Alex, “Okay, enough consuming, let’s make something.” Get them to make things with the web, not just watch videos, play games, like that. For example, Minecraft is a much better game to be playing. It’s like a Lego online kind of thing. If you have a kid, get them playing Minecraft. It’s a very inventive and fun game. More of that.

Q: I think where all of that goes then is the question of how should we take seriously the current leadership capacity of our children 18 and under to contribute to global problems?

A: I love that question. Never underestimate the force that is middle school. I love middle school kids because even though they look smaller, they’re really like mini-adults in a lot of ways, just without a lot of experience. I met a guy named Daniel who in seventh grade was worried about the digital divide. Back to the point about government, the government’s like, “We’ve got to solve the digital divide.” Poor government can’t solve that. We need to step up and solve it for ourselves. They can help, they can enable. What Daniel did is he organized his classmates. They began a program to help educate people and get computer access. These kids refurbished 350,000 computers and gave them to people. Then they also went on to not only do a digital literacy program across their state — I think he was in Indiana — but also a financial literacy program. These kids can do astonishing things. Paula, who’s going to speak tomorrow, told me about a kid who just spoke at TED, who I think is 11 or so, who was guarding cattle and just came up with a way for garbage light bulbs in Kenya to flash at night to keep the lions away because he was tired. He would fall asleep and not go around with his flashlight and the lions would come eat the cattle. So he came up with this inventive thing. Kids can do anything, just get them the tools and the information.

Q: Let’s talk for a second about China — you referred to India and the 250 million people online and education, what are the challenges that China itself presents to this model that you’re talking about: open source and collaborative interchange? Tell us a little bit about how Google, how you, look at China and possibilities for change.

A: This is a hard question, and I’m not a China expert. We had a complex issue with China where we decided as a company to stop serving at, which is a Chinese version, because we just didn’t want to keep censoring. It’s just so against the way that our company’s values are, and so we stopped doing that. That was hard. We also had some break-ins that came from somewhere in China and came to get our intellectual property. It’s a complex issue. I always believe in people. I think ultimately the people, the Chinese people, are an incredible group of people. I’m hopeful for them that they will evolve their culture, but it’s pretty difficult right now.

Q: Let’s talk about medicine. What involvement does Google have with telemedicine, and then a follow-up to that has to do with Medicare and its involvement with technology and information sharing, specifically about moving radiology around? Does Google help in terms of providing say, radiology, and other telemedicine into places like Africa and other locations?

A: People use our platforms for this stuff so we tend not to do vertical —we call them enterprise projects — sort of those kinds of products other than some of our apps and cloud products used by companies. We tend to do more consumer products, but Google Hangouts is a videoconference technology that a lot of doctors use to teach each other or to do remote telemedicine. That’s been used a lot. There’s actually a lot of cool videos on the web with people talking about that. One of my favorite things is Paul Farmer. I talked to Paul Farmer, who said that in Rwanda what he’s doing is he’s able to send the lab results digitally to the doctors in Boston. So he can have second opinions and additional opinions. I think that we’re starting to see in this Model T, Model A, this beginning — labs and other things going for other opinions, second opinions. Paul says that the Boston doctors are so excited about the project, they actually read those labs first before they read their local patients’. The other thing that I think is incredibly exciting for medicine and health is just big data. All of our genetic information together with information about other patients like you is a great website. To begin to debug some of these rarer diseases, and also just work on cancer and other things, we can learn more by knowing more about all of us and having that data adjacent and allowing researchers to work against that. I think we’re going to see extraordinary breakthroughs.

Q: Living in this, working in this, being this person devoted to how things move around, do you have issues of privacy? And if so, how do you ensure your privacy in this context?

A: I haven’t come across a lot of personal privacy issues. I think it’s an area that we as a world are figuring out, the Europeans very much leading us in those areas. One thing we do with our kids is — like with Louie having his phone, we try to not have him do Geotagging of where he is, posting his physical location. My partner, Kara, tweets everything. She’s very, very digital. She always has been.

Q: Could you tell us about Google Rescue and could you also then share what is’s mission statement?

A: Google Rescue might mean Google Crisis Response. What we did was we have these amazing mapping technologists. First off, what I think is very useful to do in a crisis situation or in general in service is bring what you’re good at. Our company is particularly good at mapping, we’re good at network, we’re good at these different things. For example, when the Haiti earthquake happened, we sent a team there, and of course we can give money and do the things, which we did. But, the better thing we could do is, a bunch of our data center engineers knew the ISPs on the ground because we talked to them and their pagers are going off. So they ran around and collected $250 thousand worth of stuff, racks of equipment, that we knew from talking to the ISPs on the ground that if we got that to [United States Academic Decathlon] and they shipped it over there, they would rebuild the landing station where the Internet was coming into Port-au-Prince and then that network would come back for all the responders. That was a good use of us. Another good use of us was the GOI, our partner in imageries flew over and was able to capture imagery of what had happened in the earthquake right after. So, we post that as fast as we can. So, all the responders and citizens on the ground could do their thing. If we put that up a group called Ushahidi [Haiti Crisis Map], which does amazing map and crisis response, is able to take our maps and then people can text and say where people are. In fact, people were rescued under the rubble who were able to text to friends who posted on Facebook, who put it on Ushahidi. Then the rescuers could go more directly to where they were. This is amazing work. The last thing, a guy named [Ka-Ping Yee] launched a thing that he helped build it bigger — someone else who did it — called [Google] Person Finder. It let’s you say, “I’m looking for someone, I have information about someone.” It’s just federating the databases that were all over the place, and getting those together was really helpful during the Japanese earthquake/tsunami. In fact, people were going in and taking cell phone photos in the refugee camps of who was there because you wrote your name. People online somewhere else were typing them into Person Finder and people were able to find each other much faster. Just using technologies that you’re good at that another company or another person is good at and federating together. In the same way, I’m talking about solving global problems, solving crisis problems together. That’s how we do that. For, the focus is around energy access, general access, K-12 STEAM — education or science, technology, engineering, arts and math education — then women and girls. All of their work tends to be where there’s a way to leverage technology and we could help. We also have something we call “1 percent time,” which is where all the Googlers spend at least 1 percent of their time in some kind of service way, usually by doing skills-based volunteering. Then we do employee match and a lot of different programs like that. We also give away hundreds of millions of dollars of free ad words to all the nonprofits. So, if you go to, you can find a place where you can use all of our tools to try to get them to leverage the digital world the way the commercial world is able to leverage digital technologies.

—transcribed by Josh Austin