The former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, talked up Britain's technology research and startup ecosystem during a speech at McKinsey's inaugural Blink event in London yesterday.

Since leaving Alphabet the executive has been appointed chairman of the US Department of Defense's "Innovation Board" and leads on various philanthropic causes, including his own family trust and the exceptional talent advocate Rise.

Eric Schmidt
Eric Schmidt

Schmidt started his speech by talking up the Google subsidiary Deepmind, which he says he visited the office of earlier this week. "[Deepmind] is the most likely group to invent the new kinds of artificial intelligence, the most scintillating and possible free-thinking computers," he said.

Read next: Google DeepMind: the story behind the world's leading AI startup

Speaking more broadly about the research capabilities across the UK, Schmidt proposed that advances in computing power and AI could allow the "next generation of scientists in Britain to use tools that will allow for completely new paradigm shifts in core aspects of science".

"Things like protein folding and quantum chemistry," he added. "There's every reason to think that – you go back 100 years ago to the great period of British science – that it's possible for it to recur again, because of the focus on education, focus on talent and the focus on technology that's possible in your country."

"Don't screw it up"

Schmidt is clearly enamoured by the idea of 'exceptional talent', as shown by his financial commitments to the Rise cause and his links with the Rhodes Trust.

"Exceptional talent shows up everywhere," he said. "One of the credos of Silicon Valley is that it is run and attracts exceptional talent from everywhere. That's why, for example, we're so global compared to the rest of the United States."

Schmidt called for the UK to continue attracting and keeping the most talented scientists and entrepreneurs: "The good news about Britain is, at least today in your government, some of the anti-high skills immigration laws have been relaxed, you're allowed to get more people in to the country. You need the smartest people in the world to come to Britain to fund, found and drive these corporations. London in particular, is so incredibly multicultural. It's a wonderful and hospitable place for such people. So you have a real asset, don't screw it up. Right?"

It's a rosy outlook but one that doesn't quite chime with the current political mood in the UK, where the home secretary Priti Patel recently vowed to "end the free movement of people" during the Conservative Party Conference.

The prime minster, Boris Johnson, did vow to introduce a “fast-track visa route” to attract “the brightest and best” later this year, but with the ongoing confusion around Brexit this is far from guaranteed.

“I want the UK to continue to be a global science superpower, and when we leave the EU we will support science and research and ensure that, far from losing out, the scientific community has a huge opportunity to develop and export our innovation around the world,” Johnson said at the time.

Read next: What UK startups need to know about freedom of movement post-Brexit

The government has repeatedly signalled its intention to reduce net migration and plans to replace the current immigration system with an "Australian-style" points-based system after Brexit, which "prioritises skills and what people can contribute to the UK, rather than where they came from," a Home Office spokesperson told Techworld.

This is where Schmidt's belief in exceptional individuals can coexist with the current direction of travel around immigration in the UK, but the increasing limitations being put in place, specifically around settling family members and the difficulties around securing settled status, or the 2,000 annual Tier 1 visas, could push that exceptional talent, which can "show up anywhere", to settle elsewhere.


Later on Schmidt talked up the UK startup scene for its tradition of "openness and the tolerance for high skills immigration, capital flow and risk".

"You have many entrepreneurs moving here for that reason. Britain is a particularly good platform to do global things. There's enough unicorns here to think that the system will generate enough learning to continue to generate more. The capital markets are accessible and so forth and so on," he said, adding that this seems to occur "independent of what happens politically".

On the subject of politics, Schmidt opened his speech with a joke, saying that he had just flown in from Washington DC, where all the discussion is around the impeachment hearings for Donald Trump, to visit a country which is: "I don't know, fully focused on exploiting advances in science and technology, one that had no political dysfunction, where smart policies are fuelling economic growth... So I'm going to Beijing next week."

On China, Schmidt called the nation a leader in the areas of surveillance and fintech: "I'm not necessarily sure that you want to be a leader in surveillance, nevertheless, they are the leader in surveillance. They're also a leader in financial technology, where essentially everything is done without currency in any form. This happened I think, partly because they didn't have the intermediary systems and regulations that the West does, but whether they got there one way or the other, it's important to say they're leading in two industries and there are probably others they're going to lead in."

Schmidt, an avowed capitalist, says this should simply be viewed as another competitor in the market though: "We have a new competitor, so how are we going to compete? How are we going to win? How are we going to do better?"

Schmidt also talked briefly about the impact of technology disruption on society and the need for governments to better protect those left behind by the pace of change: "One of the things that happens with disruption then is there's more winners and losers. Right? That's an uncomfortable fact about this. I worry about this because I don't think society is quite organised as the rate at which this is going to occur. A lot of us are working on this.

"There are many, many complicated problems and political solutions that are possible. But it's important to acknowledge that there are winners and losers, and that you need to make sure that you address the needs of the losers and give them an opportunity to continue to compete and continue to innovate to continue to be successful."