By Bruce Tushabe
Home to the self-driving car initiative and the Internet-connected eyeglasses
As the polymath engineers and scientists who work there are fond of saying, Google X is the search giant’s factory for moonshots, those million-to-one scientific bets that require generous amounts of capital, massive leaps of faith, and a willingness to break things. Google X (the official spelling is Google [x]) is home to the self-driving car initiative and the Internet-connected eyeglasses, Google Glass, among other improbable projects.
The biggest moonshot of all may be the skunk works itself: With X, Google has created a laboratory whose mandate is to come up with technologies that sound more like plot contrivances from Star Trek than products that might satisfy the short-term demands of Google’s shareholders. “Google X is very consciously looking at things that Google in its right mind wouldn’t do,” says Richard DeVaul, a “rapid evaluator” at the lab. “They built the rocket pad far away from the widget factory, so if the rocket blows up, it’s hopefully not disrupting the core business.”
Since its creation in 2010, Google has kept X largely hidden from view. Over the past month, a number of tech experts spoke to many of X’s managers and project leaders, who work with abundant resources and few of the constraints that smothered similar corporate research efforts in the past. “Anything which is a huge problem for humanity we’ll sign up for, if we
can find a way to fix it,” Teller says.
It’s shocking how much research is no longer being done
Google X seeks to be an heir to the classic research labs, such as the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bomb, and Bletchley Park, where code breakers cracked German ciphers and gave birth to modern cryptography. After the war, the spirit of these efforts was captured in pastoral corporate settings: AT&T’s Bell Labs and Xerox PARC, for example, became synonymous with breakthroughs (the transistor and the personal computer among them) and the inability of each company to capitalize on them.
That was last century. NASA’s budget has been clipped by 11 percent since 1990. Companies are pulling back on basic research as well, preferring to buy disruptive innovation when they see it in startups. “I’m pessimistic,” says John Seely Brown, the former director of PARC. “It’s shocking how much research is no longer being done. We have no understanding of
how fast China is catching up. I think we are a very complacent nation.”
Google X occupies a pair of otherwise ordinary two-story red-brick buildings about a half-mile from Google’s main campus. There’s a burbling fountain out front and rows of company-issued bikes, which employees use to shuttle to the main campus. Inside one of the buildings, frosted glass covers the conference room windows. A race car tricked out with self-driving
technology is parked in the lobby. The car doesn’t actually work; it was put there as an April Fools’ joke. Some of the hallway whiteboards are filled with diagrams of that multigenerational nerd fantasy: space elevators. Media outlets have speculated that Google X is working on such contraptions, which would involve giant cables that connect the earth to orbiting space platforms. Google X is working on no such project, but employees have embraced the concept. It keeps everyone guessing.
The self-driving cars
If it weren’t for the robo-cars, there might be no such thing as Google X. The lab’s origins reach back to 2005, when Page first met the Stanford computer scientist Sebastian Thrun at the Darpa Grand Challenge, where Thrun’s team of graduate students was competing to send an autonomous vehicle through a 7-mile obstacle course in the Mojave Desert. The two men
shared a belief in the promise of artificial intelligence and robotics and became friends. Two years later, Page convinced Thrun and several of his students to help with its Street View mapping project.
Thrun had grown disenchanted with the pace of academia, where professors are motivated to publish papers rather than build products. He started the self-driving car project at Google in early 2009. Page and Brin gave him a target: Build one that could flawlessly drive 1,000 miles of open California highways and serpentine city streets. Thrun and his team of a dozen
engineers met that goal in 15 months. Their car successfully navigated the jammed streets of Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, and the lower span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, where the car had no GPS reception.
As progress exceeded their expectations, Thrun, Brin, and Page began to talk about expanding the project into a full-fledged research lab. For Page and Brin, it was a way to indulge their longtime interest in technologies beyond search—which generated $44 billion in revenue last year—while keeping the perennially restless Thrun in the fold. “The Google
founders were deeply impressed with Sebastian’s ability to be a great scientist who also gets stuff done,” says Teller, a contemporary of Thrun’s at Carnegie Mellon, who joined Google X from a hedge fund, Cerebellum Capital. “Google X
was to some extent created as a home for self-driving cars, and literally it was an enticement for Sebastian to stay.”
Google does not disclose the lab’s budget
Thrun always thought of corporate labs as playgrounds for lifetime employees who were overly absorbed by the abstractions of pure research. He wanted to focus on research that was at least commercially plausible and let talent come and go as projects evolved. Thrun says he seriously considered calling the new group the Google Research Institute, but that carried exactly the kind of sleepy connotations he was trying to avoid. Google X, he says, was a placeholder, a variable to be filled in later.
Brin decreed early on that the new lab would focus most of its energies on creating hardware. The company’s board of directors funded Google X in January 2010. (Google does not disclose the lab’s budget, but its R&D budget was $6.8 billion in 2012, up 79 percent since 2010.) Google Glass was X’s second project. Babak Parviz, an electrical engineering professor
at the University of Washington, who was working on wearable computers, caught the attention of Brin and Page with a paper about the possibility of contact lenses with built-in electronics that could project images onto the wearer’s eye. Combining cars and wearable computing in Thrun’s budding laboratory somehow seemed appropriate. The first Google Glass prototype was a 10-pound head-mounted display with multiple cables snaking down to a box attached to the
Segway for your face
The latest incarnation of Glass weighs about the same as a normal pair of glasses and is considerably more discreet. The device, which is currently available only to developers, costs $1,500, hangs the equivalent of an HD display over the right eye, and is capable of taking photos and video, displaying e-mail, and subjecting its owner to ridicule. Critics have piled on
about Google Glass’s dorkiness—it’s been called a Segway for your face—and, more seriously, its potential for surreptitious surveillance. Parviz wants the world to see Glass in the context of Google X: It’s aimed at making access to knowledge so fast and seamless that it “fundamentally changes the meaning of knowing things.”
Teller compares Glass to the first Apple personal computer. “We are proposing that there is value in a totally new product category and a totally new set of questions,” he says. “Just like the Apple II proposed, Would you reasonably want a computer in your home if you weren’t an accountant or professional? That is the question Glass is asking, and I hope in the end that is how it will be judged.”
Although still young, Google X already has a tradition
As a project evolves beyond the scope of the lab or fails to pan out, the researchers gather for a formal graduation ceremony, complete with diplomas and mortarboards emblazoned with the letter X, to bid goodbye to the people who worked on the project. Last year a team had a graduation after it finished building a neural network that runs on thousands of computers which could learn by surfing the Web.
Some of the real projects in Google X sound almost as outlandish. Makani Power’s newest airborne turbine prototype, called Wing 7, is a 26-foot-long carbon-fiber contraption with four electricity-generating propellers that flies in circles at altitudes of 800 to 2,000 feet, sending power down a lightweight tether to a base station. “If we’re successful, we can get rid of a huge part of the fossil fuels we use,” says Damon Vander Lind, the startup’s chief engineer. Vander Lind acknowledges it might not work, but: “If you don’t take that chance, and put a decade of your life trying to do it, no progress will get made.”
Then there’s X’s still-secret project to bring Internet access to undeveloped parts of the world. A decade ago, David Grace, a senior research fellow at the University of York, spearheaded a project to mount broadband transmitters on high-altitude balloons, as part of a multicountry initiative backed by the European Commission, called the Capanina Consortium. The initiative never progressed beyond the experimental stage. Grace now says that he has heard that Google is working on such balloon-based broadband technology.
Last month, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt made the surprising pronouncement that “by the end of the decade, everyone on earth will be connected to the Internet.” Skeptics immediately noted that 60 percent of the world is not yet online and that there are many countries without even reliable telecommunications grids. Teller won’t confirm or even discuss such a project, though he concedes that wiring the planet would fall squarely into Google X’s purview. Grace says, “It does need the Googles of the world to push this forward.”
Teller the current head of Google x says he wants Google X to be judged not only on its financial return but on the progress it makes toward clean energy or wiring the world, or on its other projects. “We are still in our adolescence,” he says. “We are still figuring out how to do things, like how to kill projects or amplify them when we decide they need to go into the next stage.” For now, X will take on two or three new moonshots a year. “If there’s an enormous problem with the world, and we can convince ourselves that over some long but not unreasonable period of time we can make that problem go away, then we don’t need a business plan,” Teller says. “We should be focused on making the world a better place, and once we do that, the money will come back and find us.”
Adopted from Bloomberg