Checking in With Alphabet Chair John Hennessy

Here’s what the Alphabet/Google chair and Stanford professor says about his new gig, "fake news," and the future of technology

John Hennessy, photographed in 2012 for IEEE Spectrum.
Photo: Gabriela Hasbun

John Hennessy has had a busy month. The former president of Stanford University was just named chairman of the board for Alphabet, Google’s parent company. And he just helped name the first class of 49 Knight-Hennessy scholars, his new program aimed at turning graduate students into leaders that will improve the world. (He called all of them personally to give them the news—he was that excited.)

I caught up with Hennessy to find out a little more about how he plans to juggle his multiple roles, how Google can “Do the right thing” (as the company’s new motto states), and his views on current hot-button issues in technology. Here’s what he had to say.

On taking on the chairmanship of Alphabet, and how it fits with his day job:

How much time will Alphabet take? Hennessy says: “I’m planning to be down there once a month—twice as much as before. [In order to do that] I will probably compress my schedule a little bit, I’ll take some things off. I’m finishing up a book on leadership that I’ve been working on for the past year, so that will free some time.” He will continue on as director of the Knight-Hennessy scholars program, and teaching will likely stay in the mix. At the moment, he says, “I’m teaching a graduate course on advanced multicore computer architectures.”

On not being evil, doing the right thing, and changing things for the positive:

Google in recent years changed its company motto from “Don’t be evil” to “Do the right thing.” The Knight-Hennessy scholars will “Change things for the positive.” Fine differences in meaning, to be sure, but different nonetheless. Hennessy explained his perspective on doing good and avoiding evil: “The change from ‘Don’t be evil’ to ‘Do the right thing,’” he says, “was an attempt to push the company in the direction of using technology to do the right thing, that’s more than just avoiding evil.”

“For Google, sometimes that means the right answer is to change something. Sometimes it’s to make what you have better,” he adds.

Doing the right thing, Hennessy says, also means thinking about what will be good for both users and shareholders in the long term. “If you focus so much on the short-term money,” he says, “you won’t be doing either your long-term shareholders nor your users any particular good. I worry today that there are too many startups that just want a quick hit, not to make a long-term investment, and that’s not what Silicon Valley was built around. You look at our history—at Hewlett and Packard or Gordon Moore. They built great companies because they believed those companies could produce products that could make people’s lives better—that is what we should be aiming for.”

On the dangers of “fake news,” social media, and the presence of technology everywhere:

“It’s not technology that has created the rifts in our communities,” says Hennessy, “so much as it is that the country and the world are divided; tech just enables anyone to put their opinions out there.”

“However,” he says, “we should be able to determine and control truly fake news, information that is patentable false. And we should be able to figure out how to identify videos that truly incite violence and not be associated with that.”

He acknowledges: “That’s not going to be easy; censorship is a difficult thing to do. It presents a big challenge for the tech industry.”

Hennessy also worries “about young people becoming so focused on electronic devices that they reduce personal interactions, reading books, and other experiences. When I was growing up, we had extremely strict limitations on when we could watch TV or not; there was absolutely no TV during the week, and only limited viewing time on weekends,” he says. “We have to do the same with young people and their devices today.”

On artificial intelligence (and why it’s not overhyped):

“I think AI is a gigantic change,” says Hennessy. “We argue back and forth about whether it is an even bigger change than the Internet itself; it might not be, but it is going to change a lot of things.”

AI has taken off, he says, thanks to the increase in computational power, of course, but also, oddly enough, thanks to spam.

“One of the early successes for machine learning was spam detection,” Hennessy points out. “What made that possible was that we had millions of messages tagged by users as spam or not spam. Getting this kind of [tagged] data on a big scale and making it available for neural nets was a fundamental change” that aided the development of AI.

On Bitcoin (and why it is overhyped):

“I believe in cybercurrency,” says Hennessy. “There are good things to be said about it, but it is hyped, there is a lot of work before we have one that is reliable and useable and convertible to cash.”

On quantum computing (and why it’s important to be patient):

It’s not so much that quantum computing is hyped, Hennessy says, “because if it eventually works it will be revolutionary, but a lot of people are predicting that it is going to work for interesting problems far too early. It is great technology. It is indeed promising, but it is still in the physics lab, it isn’t in the hands of computer designers.”

And, finally, just for fun, what’s the last thing he Googled?

“That,” he says, “was Duke’s announcement of their Knight-Hennessy scholar, a young woman from India who wants to work in health care policy. I wanted to see if Duke thinks she’s as great as we do.”

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