Driverless cars, diversity and dystopia: 3 things Google discussed at its annual meeting

Google talks about a wide range of topics during its annual meeting with shareholders, including self-driving cars and diversity issues. CEO Larry Page even takes a turn as a film critic.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
4 min read

Google's brass addressed questions from shareholders. Screenshot by CNET

It's been a long time since Google was just a search company. The tech giant now has its hand in a little bit of everything, including self-driving cars, tools for people who experience tremors and smart contact lenses.

But with all those big investments comes scrutiny on how all those projects come together, and how worthwhile they are to the company.

"Our strategy is to focus on things that are not only relevant now, but also in the next generation," Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said Wednesday at the company's annual shareholder meeting at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Google has been increasingly ambitious about expanding its scope of products beyond its juggernaut search engine. Its search and advertising business is still the most dominant in the world, making more than $50 billion a year. But as the Internet evolves, CEO Larry Page has been looking to where future revenue streams will come from.

Page and co-founder Sergey Brin, along with Schmidt and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond, were on hand Wednesday to field questions from shareholders. But a wide-ranging set of company projects means a wide-ranging discussion.

Here are three things Google talked about on Wednesday -- about the company, and, well, the future in general.

1. Driverless cars are 'very, very close' to not needing humans to intervene

That's how Schmidt described Google's autonomous- initiative, one of the company's most high-profile experimental projects. Last month, Google announced it would be testing its prototype Google-designed cars on public roads in Mountain View.

Brin, who heads up the effort, gave more details about the project and the driving record of the vehicles. The company said last month that its cars had been involved in 11 "minor" accidents over the last six years. Brin updated that figure to 12, adding that one car had been rear-ended in the past week.

The company says none of the incidents were the fault of the Google cars and there were no injuries. Brin also said that three of the accidents came when the car wasn't driving itself -- it was a human driver controlling the vehicle. (Prior to the meeting, Brin filed a note to the Securities and Exchange commission touting the benefits of the project.)

John Simpson, a consumer advocate for the group Consumer Watchdog, pressed Brin to release the individual accident reports for each incident. But Brin balked, saying the company gives the same amount of information to the public that the form requires, and releasing the reports would violate the privacy of the human drivers.

"We don't claim that the cars are going to be perfect. Our goal is to beat human drivers," said Brin. "Nothing can be a perfect vehicle. I just wanted to set that expectation."

2. Bring on the diversity scrutiny

Google knows it has a problem with diversity among its rank and file, and the company said it welcomes the criticism.

"The thing you can do is continue to push us. We will continue to push ourselves," said Drummond. "We welcome the pressure."

The company on Monday released updated diversity figures, and the numbers were largely static. The overall percentage of women workers at the company is the same as the year before at 30 percent. Latino workers made up 3 percent while black workers made up 2 percent. But there are also signs of progress: Google said the number of women hired in 2014 for technical roles went up by 1 percent.

"There's been some progress," Drummond said. "But not nearly enough."

Google has been proactive in trying to address the problem. The company is setting aside $150 million to focus on diversity initiatives this year, up from $115 million last year. Part of that goes to funding individual programs.

One of them, called Google in Residence, embeds Google engineers as professors, mentors and advisers at historically black colleges, including Howard, Morehouse and Spelman. The idea is to nudge black students into considering a career in tech after they leave college. The company also has workshops for its employees that try to stamp out "unconscious bias" -- instances of discrimination that aren't overt or even intentional.

Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been vocal in getting Silicon Valley companies to address their diversity problems, summed it up while addressing Page, Drummond and Schmidt at the meeting.

"The untapped genius of America, the unfinished business, is inclusion," he said.

3. Let's be optimistic

Perhaps one of the most bizarre -- and most human -- moments of the meeting came when a young shareholder straight out of law school asked about the scope of Google's mission.

He mentioned dystopian portrayals of the future, in particular the movie "Wall-E," where a small, trash-collecting robot lives in an age where humans have become obese and dependent on moving chairs to get around. As the shareholder described the movie, Page mimicked the obese population in the movie by slouching in his chair and pretending to be bloated.

Page responded by referencing another movie, "Tomorrowland," which Disney released two weeks ago (he didn't like it). But he said he was intrigued to see the film because he thought positive portrayals of the future are rare. The problem with the movie, though, was that the story didn't satisfy him, and dire portrayals make for better stories.

"It's much easier to focus on the negative, and what will stoke our fear," he said.

But he warned that people shouldn't be fooled by dystopian tropes. "By all measures, the world is getting better," he said. Poverty is down, empowerment is up, he added. "So we should be optimists."