Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google and parent company Alphabet Inc., said the U.S. government should take a more active role in policing cyberattacks and encouraging innovation with policies and investments.
In the wake of recent cybersecurity breaches attributed to Chinese and Russian hackers, Mr. Pichai said the time had come to draft the equivalent of a Geneva Convention for technology to outline international legal standards for an increasingly connected world.
"Governments on a multilateral basis…need to put it up higher on the agenda," Mr. Pichai said in a recorded interview for The Wall Street Journal’s Tech Live conference on Monday. "If not, you’re going to see more of it because countries would resort to those things."
Mr. Pichai also appealed to the U.S. government to take an active role in fostering innovation amid rising competition from China. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has outlined an ambitious plan to advance the country’s artificial-intelligence capabilities and develop its own semiconductor sector. The ambitions have coincided with a Balkanization of the global internet as China, Russia and others censor content and require tech companies to store data inside their geographic borders.
Google, whose signature search engine doesn’t operate in China, is investing in quantum computing and artificial intelligence to stay ahead of Chinese internet companies that compete with it to provide services in markets around the world, including Southeast Asia, Mr. Pichai said.
"We can take a long-term view and do [that], particularly at a time when governments have slightly pulled back on basic [research and development] funding," Mr. Pichai said.
However, he said the government could support Google’s efforts to stay ahead by adopting policies such as providing work visas to talented engineers and scientists from overseas. It also could provide incentives to give the U.S. more control over the semiconductor supply chain, which is largely dependent on Taiwan-based factories managed by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.
The Biden administration has pressed Congress to address that issue by funding bipartisan legislation known as the Chips for America Act, designed to encourage domestic semiconductor investment.
"Public-private partnerships here can be a good template," Mr. Pichai said. "This is an area [where], you know, there’s bipartisan interest in making sure that we are thinking about it for the long term."
The call for government action is part of a shifting ethos in Silicon Valley. In the past, the region has championed libertarian ideals and favored government’s staying out of the way of its innovations. But tech leaders have begun to encourage Washington to get more involved in the tech industry as competition with China escalates, cyberattacks intensify and lawmakers express concerns about misinformation and censorship on social-media platforms.
There are limits to the potential common ground with government, particularly when it comes to rising antitrust scrutiny of tech companies by lawmakers and regulators. Currently, Google is fighting an antitrust lawsuit brought by the Justice Department alleging it uses anticompetitive practices to preserve a monopoly for its search-engine and advertising business.
The change in approach harks back decades, to when the U.S. government fostered the tech industry. In his call for more government intervention and investment, Mr. Pichai recalled that Silicon Valley is partly an outgrowth of the U.S. government’s Cold War investments to develop technology and support the semiconductor industry.
"All of us are benefiting from foundational investments," Mr. Pichai said.
During the interview, Mr. Pichai also spoke about Google’s evolving workplace culture. He described a future where Google workers will be in the office about three days a week and enjoy the flexibility to work remotely four weeks a year. Still, he said it is important for people to congregate in offices because they can generate ideas together that they can’t generate apart.
"The challenge of hybrid work, some people being on video, some people in [the office], is how do you really make it feel like everyone seems they’re fully participating," Mr. Pichai said. "We are embracing it as a challenge."
Google’s response has been to create more collaboration spaces in its offices, so that it can encourage people to trade ideas, he said.
The company’s workforce has begun gradually returning to the office on a voluntary basis. Its offices in New York are at 50% occupancy and "people seem really excited" to be back, Mr. Pichai said. The company’s offices in Mountain View are lagging behind with only 20% to 30% occupancy.
Mr. Pichai said he is back in the office two to three days a week now. He misses his morning commute and the reflection time it provided before the workday. He has tried to replace that with other moments of "deep thinking," he said. He also has changed his morning routine from reading the print edition of The Wall Street Journal to reading it online.
Google has grappled with prominent episodes of employee unrest in recent years as staff organized a walkout over its sexual-harassment policies and raised concerns about government contracts. That type of organizing has now become more common at other companies such as Apple Inc., which had workers organize against an executive over alleged misogyny, and Netflix Inc., which has seen its employees call for walkouts over a controversial Dave Chappelle comedy special.
Mr. Pichai said such incidents are now part of "running a large company." At Google, he views employee activism as a strength. "It brings a sense of accountability," he said. He added that Google has tried to address it by making it easier for employees to raise concerns and trying to have management "be clear and firm" when it makes a decision.
Google has been in the process of adding offices in New York, Atlanta and elsewhere around the country. Its growth outside Silicon Valley has coincided with expansions on the East Coast by Apple, Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp. , raising questions about the centrality of the Bay Area to the future of the tech industry.
"It’s a growing pie," Mr. Pichai said. But he added that "Silicon Valley is still doing amazing things and has access to the best talent possible."