Google X shows dogged determination for far-out research

Think Android and Chrome OS are evolutionary, not revolutionary? Google X tackles grander challenges like building a giant cable from the Earth into space, reports say.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Google co-founders Larry Page, left, and Sergey Brin, inside a Google self-driving car, with former Chief Executive Eric Schmidt standing behind. The self-driving cars are reportedly part of Google X, a collection of advanced technology projects.
Google's Larry Page, left, and Sergey Brin sit inside a Google self-driving car, with Eric Schmidt behind. The self-driving cars are reportedly part of Google X, a collection of advanced technology projects. Google

There's a constant tension at Google between fast-moving, nimble, disruptive projects and the more plodding established business.

Sometimes the entrenched part of the business comes out ahead, as when Google canceled Google Labs. But attempts to nurture a start-up ethos within the company continue, this time with a project called Google X digging into advanced robotics and more.

Word of Google X had bubbled up in recent months, via MG Siegler, formerly of TechCrunch, and Nicholas Carlson at Business Insider. But New York Times' Clair Cain Miller and Nick Bilton have just delivered a lot more detail with a collection of tidbits about Google X.

According to the Times report, Google X research takes place at an undisclosed location and tackles assorted subjects a little or a lot beyond today's technology. Among its projects: Google's self-driving cars, space elevators to haul cargo into orbit, and that hoary old chestnut of Internet-enabled fancies: the Net-connected refrigerator.

Those who dreamed up the 100 projects under way at Google X include company co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Executive Chairman and former Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, and other executives. Brin is actively involved in the project, the reports said.

Among those the Times said are working on projects are artificial intelligence and robotics expert Sebastian Thrun; machine learning expert Andrew Ng; and Johnny Chung Lee, who helped develop Microsoft's Kinect game controller after working on extensive hacks built on Ninendo's Wii controller. Ng and Thrun also are Stanford researchers, and Lee apparently is working on Google's research with the "Internet of things," a years-old idea concerning the connection of many more devices than just computers to the Net.

Early-stage research is something of a rarity in the corporate world, but Google has long cherished the ideal of tackling problems thought to be impossible to solve. One interesting facet of the Google X projects revealed thus far is that they involve hardware, not just software.

Google is regularly derided for being unable to expand its revenue sources much beyond its original commercial success: online search. But I give the company credit for a lot of serious work in big projects that are a real departure from the status quo.

Google Maps, for example, never ceases to astound me. This weekend, I plotted a visit to a small bed and breakfast in Normandy using Street View. Google's all-seeing cars for mapping haven't made it everywhere yet, but they've penetrated rural France. And Google's free, global maps are growing in sophistication with 3D buildings and crowdsourced data-gathering in many areas. It may not be a cash cow like search ads, but it's a monumental challenge to gather and distribute the data, and Google does it better than anyone else.

Android, too, remains impressive. Even if Apple paved the way for it with iOS, Google has done a tremendous amount of real programming work to make Android real. It's got plenty of warts, but in my book it's a success overall, both as a product and in Google's ambition to unlock the power of the mobile Internet.

Other efforts are closer to home for the company. Chrome has secured a beachhead in a market where nobody thought we needed another browser. Google Apps puts a cloud-computing twist on the old ideas of e-mail and word processing, with the demerits of its sometimes-primitive interface offset by steady improvements and the fact that millions use it. The Chrome OS is a toy for now, but its future looks a bit brighter every time a new Web standard shows up, a new online service arrives, or a browser speed boost gets Web programmers to move a native app to the Web.

And let's not forget YouTube. It hasn't pushed aside the dominant makers and distributors of premium content but nevertheless has proved online video to be in the same league as e-mail. Note also that YouTube generates a lot of ad revenue nowadays.

Plenty of Google attempts to disrupt industries have been duds thus far, of course. Google Books, Google TV, and Google Music are weak. Google Buzz flopped, despite being anchored to the very successful Gmail. And Google+, which I wouldn't call a dud, nevertheless remains at this stage an evolutionary change following Facebook's lead rather than a revolutionary project in which Google is rewriting the rules. Google Translate shows a lot of promise but delivers embarrassingly bad and sometimes downright wrong answers at times.

Google X projects, though, seem a lot more ambitious. They're apparently much further afield than just whipping up a new programming language or laying fiber-optic cable in Kansas City, though. That means a couple things.

First, the failure rate can be expected to be even higher than with Google's ordinary projects. (I'm one of those people who respects Google for trying things like Google Wave, even if it's embarrassing when they flop, because taking risks is hard for a big company.)

Second, commercialization or even public prototypes will be even more distant. If you think the world isn't ready for Google Health, think about what's required to build a 90,000-mile tether that reaches beyond geostationary orbit.