Shooting for the stars

google self-driving carJust in case you think that stuff that worked back in the old long-gone  and not much missed 20th century is going to work today, here is a reminder in a pretty good article on ‘Google X” that appeared in Bloomberg Business yesterday. You can find their full original piece here. The question is this: is this just a weird case of Californian self-indulgence, or is it smart21st century business? Let’s talk about it.

Inside Google’s Secret Lab

– By Brad Stone, May 22, 2013

Last February, Astro Teller, the director of Google’s secretive research lab, Google X, went to seek approval from Chief Executive Officer Larry Page for an unlikely acquisition. Teller was proposing that Google buy Makani Power, a startup that develops wind turbines mounted on unmanned, fixed-wing aircraft tethered to the ground like a kite. The startup, Teller told Page, was seeing promising results, and, he added proudly, its prototypes had survived all recent tests intact.

Page approved Google X’s acquisition of Makani, which was being completed for an undisclosed amount at press time. He also had a demand. “He said we could have the budget and the people to go do this,” Teller says, “but that we had to make sure to crash at least five of the devices in the near future.”

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, Bloomberg Businessweek 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.

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.”

* The full text of the article continues here

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