Why Google Has a Space Program

The Internet giant is working on some pretty nutty ideas. What's up?
Posted November 17, 2011
By

Mike Elgan


The world’s leading search engine company is thinking about becoming a car manufacturer to build self-driving cars. Oh, and maybe Google will build a space elevator, or an army of data-collecting robots.

The New York Times revealed this week that Google maintains a top secret lab hidden somewhere in Silicon Valley that is actively working on all these projects and many more. It’s like a cross between Xerox PARC and Google Co-founder Sergey Brin’s own personal LEGOLAND.

Some of the products make more sense for a search engine company. For example, Google X is reportedly working on Internet-connected refrigerators that order milk for you when you’re running low, Internet connected dinner plates that would auto-post what you’re eating on Google+ and Internet-connected clothing.

Google already announced that it would unveil an Internet-connected light bulb that can be controlled from an Android-powered cell phone.

This is all very interesting. But it raises the questions: Should Google really become a car company? Should an Internet company have a space program?

Why All of Google X Is a ‘Space Program’

All these projects sound far-fetched and outlandish. And in fact it’s hard to imagine Google moving to Detroit and setting up a factory to build robotic Priuses. (It’s also hard to imagine the politicians in Washington or anywhere else approving commercially self-driving cars for public roads.)

What drives all these projects is something I would call Google’s culture of “educated naiveté.”

Google knows and actually acts on the understanding that inventions often happen semi-accidentally. You set out to invent a new kind of vacuum tube, but accidentally invent the microwave oven.

A similar thing happens in business. You set out to build a podcasting company, but then a minor project called Twitter becomes more important than podcasting.

Google also understands that technology-related businesses rise and fall. Companies that fail to innovate simply fade away into irrelevance or non-existence. The only hope for companies like Google is to constantly invent new things.

And there’s one other thing Google understands: Success results from the things you learn from failure. So the quicker you fail, the sooner you succeed.

A research lab like Google X exists to try out a gazillion ideas. Most of them will fail. If they’re worth pursuing, the failures can be tried again and again until something that can benefit Google’s business succeeds, at which time it can come out of the secret lab and into the light of day.

If I had to bet, I would bet that Google will never become a car-maker. However, I would also bet that something interesting will come out of their self-driving car project.

In truth, the car functions as a proof-of-concept for a boat-load of interesting technologies, which can be used in all kinds of applications. For example, they could be used to improve maps, or cell phone location technologies. They could improve road safety, or be used by humanoid robots to get around autonomously.

Who knows? I don’t. And more importantly, Google doesn’t, either. However, the singular goal of creating a self-driving car focuses the research efforts on a long list of really hard problems.

In this sense, Google X is just like the US space program that put astronauts on the moon. In solving the myriad problems inherent in landing men on the moon and bringing them back alive, the Apollo program invented technologies that greatly enhanced medicine, food processing, home insulation, water filtering, sports training and power tools.

Many of the projects at Google X are just like the US Apollo program. The stated goals are often these big, impractical ideas. But the ultimate product is likely to be a great number of unpredictable technologies.

Why Google X Is All About Google’s Core Competency

What do search engines and robot cars have in common? Everything, actually.

Google’s core competency is the construction of sophisticated algorithms that do useful things with massive data sets.

And what can you do with this ability? The answer is: What can’t you do?

Sure, you can use your algorithm kung fu to maintain and improve the world’s best Internet search engine. Or you can use it to filter spam. Or serve up relevant ads. Or you can create self-driving cars. It’s all the same skill set, ultimately, but with different applications.

That’s an over-simplification, but ultimately that’s what most of those nutty Google X projects have in common.

Personally, I’m glad Google X exists. In fact, I’d love to see far more companies doing this kind of pie-in-the-sky research. Google is one of the few companies left in the United States that thinks big. Really big. And without big thinking, big advances tend not to be made.

In the 1960s, the US decided to think really big and put a man on the moon. They did, and the result was not only a breathtaking achievement that otherwise nobody else would have done, but also an astronomical number of technology benefits that nobody could have foreseen.

And now Google is one of the companies that has a “space program” of its own, thinking big and dramatically increasing the likelihood of accidental invention and discovery.

And who knows? Maybe the next time we put a man on the moon, he’ll take the elevator.




Tags: Google, development, search engine, Xerox PARC


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