President warns against technology leaving behind human skills

President Higgins paid tribute to mathematician George Boole and was presented with Irish-designed Google doodle


Simon Carswell in Mountain View, California

President Michael D Higgins used a visit to Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley to warn against advances in technology leaving behind citizens or human skills that are perceived to be no longer wanted.

On the second leg of his eight-day visit to the US west coast, Mr Higgins had a busy day of business engagements in the San Francisco Bay Area hosted by Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland.

The President told staff at Google’s “Partner Plex” that in a globalised financialised economy it was challenge to “close the gap between the consumer and informed citizen.”

“The delivery of the benefits of new technology, particularly in relation to access to information, in a manner and a context that makes those benefits available to all must be our goal,” he said, according to prepared remarks of his speech.

Mr Higgins was greeted at Google by Irish woman Lorraine Twohill, global head of marketing. He met Irish engineers behind new developments at Google and spoke to between 40 and 50 Irish staff.

In his remarks, the President said that as an academic and a writer, he recognised what had become possible in research over the past 20 years through instantaneous access to information was “truly revolutionary.”

“The adoption of your company’s name as a transitive verb in common usage is the clearest cultural monument to the scale of what you have achieved,” Mr Higgins said.

“How often now is the request for information answered with the weary reply, ‘Have you Googled it?’”

Some might bemoan the changes or struggle with the sheer range and volume of new possibilities, he said, but he acknowledged that these “possibilities without borders” were “inspiring”.

“There should be no obstacle to the new technological innovations being delivered to citizens as a priority and privileged market segments as a consequence of technical literacy,” he said.

Stressing the importance of valuing workers and decent work in conditions of rapid change, Mr Higgins said the advance of technology had “led to the perceived obsolescence of certain human skills.”

“Yet within such skills and crafts resides an intellectual wisdom and a human achievement,” he said.

“Marrying the creativity and genius of our young people with such wisdom and the tools of emerging technologies can present the most exciting of possibilities.”

Mr Higgins concluded: “The technological innovations you develop here are truly leading change in the world, a world that can be made more equitable, fairer and in which it will be possible to meet our great contemporary challenges of climate change and global poverty.”

Mr Higgins was presented with a sketch of the famous Google sign, adapted with Irish Celtic signs and shamrocks, designed by a Limerick student. In 2009, then 16-year-old Evan O'Sullivan Glynn won the company’s Doodle for Google competition with his design.

On his tour of the Google project, the President took great interest in Google’s driverless car, inspecting the exterior while his wife Mrs Sabina Higgins sat inside to check out the interior.

Earlier, the President visited US electric car manufacturer Tesla in Palo Alto where he praised its work “transforming innovative ideas into actions” as being critical in combatting climate change.

Tesla, a multi-billion dollar green technology company, was one of the “many significant stakeholders, who must all play their role in discovering, and working with each other in a globally sustainable way,” said Mr Higgins, according to prepared remarks of his speech.

“Key amongst the pioneering developments that are on the horizon at this critical juncture is a new generation of electric cars,” he said.

“The evolutionary work of companies like Tesla is critical in crafting a future which reflects the shared responsibility we have to this fragile planet which we inhabit together.”

The President was originally scheduled to have been greeted at the company by Tesla founder Elon Musk, but he later became unavailable to meet Mr Higgins on his arrival.

The company would not permit the media travelling with the President to accompany him on the visit.

In addition to senior Tesla executives, Mr Higgins met representatives of Irish companies Mergon, Enbio and Gaelectric who discussed their role and links with the US car manufacturer.

The President was also taken on a short tour of the assembly area, the same facility visited by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in June 2014.

Mr Higgins also spoke at a business lunch attended by client companies of IDA and Enterprise Ireland in Palo Alto.