Eric Schmidt Ponders the End of the C.E.O. as We Know It

Eric Schmidt
Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
November 3, 2021

Eric Schmidt, the former C.E.O. of Google and Obama pal and adviser, for years personified, if not molded, the Silicon Valley-Washington axis of influence. So I was somewhat taken aback when Schmidt told me from his New York living room this week that he didn’t think there would be another Eric Schmidt after him. “I do think that my activism, ten years ago, is not likely to get repeated,” he said. “The reason is that the C.E.O.s that are now under such control—because of both woke-ism, employee activism, shareholder activism and boards—that this next generation of executives will be much quieter, not just on politics but on global problems.”

Schmidt is indeed something of a throwback: He’s a unique figure in Silicon Valley history, an embodiment of the bonhomie between politicians and the tech sector that defined the halcyon Obama era. He served as the tip of the spear not only for Google’s massive lobbying operation, but also for Silicon Valley’s charm offensive more broadly, cultivating a then-unrivaled network of political allies. The Obama White House, in turn, celebrated the dynamism and optimism of America’s newest mega-cap corporations: You couldn’t walk across the West Wing without tripping over a Google executive there for a meeting. Schmidt, somewhat famously, had a badge that read STAFF at Hillary Clinton’s November 2016 election night party. 

Over the intervening years, that symbiosis deteriorated. In 2017, Schmidt left Google, stepping down as the company’s chairman. Since then, Schmidt has tended to two major passion projects. One is his philanthropy, Schmidt Futures, whose new $1 billion Rise program finds impressive teenagers overseas and offers them Rhodes-like scholarships. The other is less hopeful, and more dire: Schmidt’s gnawing concern that the U.S. military-industrial complex is not taking China’s dominance of artificial intelligence research seriously enough. He’s out this week with a new book I’ve read, The Age of AI, co-authored with a 98-year-old Henry Kissinger and computer scientist Daniel Huttenlocher, to paint a picture of what could be a dark future. As Schmidt told me, A.I. will soon be “extraordinarily better at targeting you.”