It sounds like the stuff of standard science fiction: a secret lab operated by one of the world’s most powerful technology companies, dedicated to researching ideas at the outer limits of human knowledge and capability. But Google X is very real, even if much of what it works still seems to be the stuff of science fiction — and not particularly plausible science fiction at that.
“This focus on the visionary over the practical is one of the things that makes Google X so fascinating,” said Jason Hope, technology expert. “Many companies wouldn’t dedicate significant resources to exploring technology without obvious commercial potential. They also wouldn’t take chances on projects with very little chance of success. But Google does things differently.”
So what is Google X and how does it fit into the company’s philosophy and strategic goals? Let’s take a peek behind the curtain.
A clandestine lab
Much of what Google X does remains shrouded in mystery, but some information has leaked over the years. Google X is believed to be headed by company co-founder Sergey Brin, and part of its mission is to explore 100 scientific longshots that are largely still at the conceptual level. Some of these projects are described as million-to-one propositions. Though it’s easy to imagine Google X as place of pure scientific exploration, that doesn’t mean there isn’t economic self-interest at play. Though many of the company’s self-described “moonshots” are unlikely to make it past the idea stage, the possibility exists that some of them could lead to world-altering (and insanely lucrative) technology. Two of Google’s highest profile products, Google Glass and the company’s driverless car, are products of the X lab. Though the ultimate viability of these products remains an open question, both have captured the imagination of the tech world and may represent a first step toward truly transformative technology.
The shroud of secrecy
Because the activities of Google X have been a relatively closely held secret, there has been rampant speculation about the sort of projects that are taking place behind closed doors. Space elevators, radical life extension and other far out concepts have been linked to the lab, although Google has denied these are actual projects. That doesn’t mean they won’t be in the near future, however. Both represent the kind of scientific inquiry squarely within the Google X mandate.
The roots of Google X can be traced to the company’s efforts to build a driverless car that can safely operate in traffic. The success of that project spurred the company to create a full-fledged research lab in 2010. Google Glass, a wearable computing device in the form of goggles, was another early X project. While Glass ran into some initial resistance on aesthetic (and privacy) grounds, the product seems poised for a successful entry into the consumer marketplace.
While driverless cars and wearable technology certainly have commercial applications, that’s not true of all Google X projects. Although the company only speaks in broad strokes about current research, the lab’s leaders insist they are open to almost any scientific idea, no matter how absurd it may sound on the surface. Astro Teller, Google X’s primary overseer, has even told reporters the lab has pondered “levitation and teleportation” – although the latter has, somewhat unsurprisingly, been ruled out as unfeasible. Other lab projects (may) include floating stratospheric balloons that provide Internet access and contact lenses that can do things like monitor the glucose content of tears.
The Future of X
It’s a truism any horse race fan could attest to –most longshots don’t come in. But success in a venture such as Google X can’t be measured by standard metrics. Mr. Hope states, “Even if a spectacularly ambitious project fails, research developed in the course of that failure might lead to new and interesting areas,” (https://www.facebook.com/jason.r.hope). Google is creating a hothouse environment for intellectual inquiry and creativity. By gathering some of technology’s greatest minds and giving them an open charter, Google has increased the odds that it will be the one to profit from the next great technological leap.
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About Author: Amy Taylor is a business and technology writer. Amy began her career as a small business owner in Phoenix, AZ. She enjoys writing about business technology trends. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking with her Alaskan Malamute, Sam.