You never stop learning

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Patrick Warnking, Country Director of Google Switzerland, talks about digitalisation as an everyday helper and as the basis for democratising public opinion and education. Plus why it gives us time for the more important things in life.

Text: Sara Meier | Photos: Google Switzerland / © SLiphardt | Magazine: Homo digitalis – June 2018

A summer on a secluded alp – no phone, no tablet, no laptop, no Wi-Fi: dream or nightmare?

Reality. My wife and I make sure that our children and we ourselves stick to clearly defined principles in the way we go about dealing with all modern media. Of course, media competence is very important to me. Nonetheless, personal – and with that, I mean face-to-face – interaction with other people remains central to one’s satisfaction and success, both in private and business life.

Do you still google? If so, what?

Sure, in fact often. The search for relevant information never ends, and learning is a lifelong undertaking. A robust search engine identifies the relevant links. Most of my queries are about practical matters such as public transportation schedules, opening hours, the availability of products – stuff like that. But for me, the most helpful hits are “how-to” videos.

Why has mankind gone digital? Is digitalisation a modern-day form of evolution?

Man hasn’t “gone” digital – things have become digital. Digitalisation aids people in their everyday lives. Take the smartphone: it saves time. It helps me to communicate, get my bearings and transact. It also lets me capture beautiful moments with photos as well as enjoy music and videos. But of course, we have to ensure that security, transparency and control remain 100 per cent in our own hands. We decide what we use, as well as when and how we use it. And it’s easy: every registered googler can specify their own personal settings in “Google: My Account”.

“I’m worried about people who either categorically spurn digitalisation like the devil shuns holy water, or view it completely in good faith.”

In business, “digitalised” means being (even more) customer-oriented or (even more) user-friendly. What does it mean in private life?

Digitalisation needs to provide added value, also in the private realm. By performing routine tasks, it gives people time for more important things in life.

With today’s digital transformation, you’re helping people to shape their future in a more positive way. But to what extent?

We’re driving digital change very directly, right to your home: for instance, with accurate search results, the public transport info and bike paths displayed in Google Maps, a highly secure browser, powerful filters to protect against spam in Gmail, and Android as a stable operating system for mobile phones – to name just a few ways. And indirectly, we drive digital transformation by offering useful tools and free training for companies. One example: many SMEs are asking us how they can optimise their websites for viewing and use on smartphones; or they want to be found more immediately, win new customers, or explain their products and services more effectively through the use of videos.

In Zurich, Google has built up its largest development centre outside the USA. Why here?

Google invests in innovation. And in accomplishing this, we’re dependent on the top-quality work of highly trained individ­uals. With its strengths, Switzerland in many ways meshes with Google’s success factors. This “love story” has been going on since 2004. Switzerland also stands for staunch values, language diversity, culture, export orientation and stability. All of these factors form an excellent foundation for globally exported software, “made in Switzerland”.

Patrick Warnking has been Country Director of Google Switzerland since 2011. From 2007 to 2010, he headed a number of teams in the Media, Games, Entertainment and Classified units at Google in Germany. Before joining Google, he spent ten years building up digital at the Kirch Group and ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE, most recently as Commercial Director for Digital. His educational path has taken him from bank trainee, to business graduate, to international MBA in Berlin, as well as to Milan, New York and the Stanford Executive Program. Along the way, Patrick Warnking has lived and worked in Germany, the USA, Italy and Switzerland.

What opportunities does the digital world offer?

By its very nature, the Internet facilitates the fundamental elements of democracy – the sort of thing that has been the hallmark of Switzerland for centuries. What’s important for me personally is having access to a broad spectrum of opinions and insights; but the way education and advanced training have become democratised thanks to digitalisation also fascinates me. These elements have the potential to level the playing field in our world, as well as to reduce poverty and injustice.

Millions of people can interact with each other via the Web these days. To what extent has this dialogue changed?

Face-to-face encounters are still vital; simply swapping selfies on the Internet doesn’t cut it. But people who know each other can certainly exchange thoughts online. For example, video conferencing is not just an efficient way to address business matters; it also has the side effect of reducing CO² emissions, as no car travel or flights are involved. Of particular relevance in my opinion are online training opportunities like the MOOC courses at the EPFL or the Khan Academy. Offers like this bring about a positive change to the dialogue between tens of millions of people.

How has digitalisation changed your own life?

I have a wife, five kids, a dog and many hobbies. Thanks to today’s apps for photos, music and video clips – all neatly packed in one device – digitalisation enriches every day for me and often brings a smile to my face. In my youth, I was still using old-fashioned things like music and video cassettes, CDs, DVDs and floppy disks. Wow. The progress we’ve made since then is incredible!

Artificial intelligence was invented by man. Whose IQ is higher – man’s or the machine’s?

AI smarts will always fall short of the human mind, simply because the emotional component is missing. IQ and EQ, meaning the emotional quotient, are like two peas in a pod. That’s why I don’t believe that values and the joy of success that people have in common can be artificially replicated. What we refer to today as artificial intelligence is actually just a mechanism for advanced pattern recognition based on millions of examples.

How does the machine aid people in everyday life? And vice versa?

Man thinks, guides and controls – and the machine needs this help. It executes only what it has “learned” from patterns and routines. Today, the most common application is image and speech recognition. For example, doctors can use pattern recognition for the interpretation of X-rays and MRI images, thereby facilitating the early detection of diseases.

Can you briefly describe the archetype of talent 4.0?

Frankly, there will never be one because people are too different. Individual skills and strengths will continue to be decisive in the future. In general, talents such as analytical thinking, critical reflection, team orientation, a feedback mindset, mutual respect, minority acceptance and above all lifelong learning will have priority.

Google Switzerland is the Google’s largest development centre outside the USA. Nearly 2,500 employees from 85 nations now work at two locations in Zurich. They refine the algorithms of Google Search and other functions such as Google Assistant and Calendar. Another example is the company’s map app, which was developed here in Switzerland. Zurich is also home to the largest YouTube development team in Europe and the Google Machine Learning Research Center.

In your opinion, which forms of digitalisation are the most influential?

Those that enable people to get to know each other and engage in dialogue, or otherwise save energy, do routine work, provide information and entertainment via video, foster innovation, or allow pattern recognition and training.

Digitalisation has made real time into society’s most important speedometer. What about yesterday? What about the day after tomorrow?

The way I see it, digitalisation doesn’t change anything about the fact that the experience and learnings of people from the past constitute the most important success factor for the present and future.

“Individual skills and strengths will continue to be decisive in the future.”

In what way do you have reservations about digitalisation?

At this point in time, we’re probably underestimating both the opportunities and the risks. I’m worried about people who either categorically spurn digitalisation like the devil shuns holy water, or view it completely in good faith. And it disturbs me greatly that access to the Internet could be excessively impaired through the elimination of net neutrality. But for me, the positive aspects prevail – as long as we view people and humanity as the most important success factors.

Where are your personal Internet-free zones?

At home, on holidays and in Mother Nature’s arms.

What question have you always wanted to answer?

“Which app do you use more frequently than Google?” To tell the truth, it’s the SBB app.

Google is famous for their unusual workplace concept. “Feel good in order to be creative” is the motto.