The Truth About Google X: An Exclusive Look Behind The Secretive Lab’s Closed Doors

Friday, April 18th, 2014

The Truth About Google X: An Exclusive Look Behind The Secretive Lab’s Closed Doors

[Note: This is a cross-post from my Tumblr, which was for LIS 9134, Privacy and Surveillance. I found I was posting on Tumblr a lot, but not as much here. Which is unfair, because a lot of these privacy issues concern libraries just as much as anything to do with books. I just found this particular article neat and wanted to share.]

Space elevators, teleportation, hoverboards, and driverless cars: The top-secret Google X innovation lab opens up about what it does—and how it…

(This is a bit of a shot in the dark — I’m not sure how many of us are still active on Tumblr now that term’s done! I think it’s a bit unfair that I’m finding all this great stuff to talk about after term ends, but if anyone’s still watching this (possibly lis9134?) then maybe some of this stuff could be useful for the next time this class is taught.)

I had no idea about any of this. Any of it. It’s almost bizarre to think they’re purposefully aiming for science-fiction-esque concepts as well (in all fairness, I came across this article through this one on Mashable, critiquing the very sci-fi vision of the future Google X is attempting to create.) It does remind me of some of the talk over Google Books — about how secretive it is, employees being driven in and driven out, etc. One man even got in trouble for photographing the Google Books employees as they came and went from the building! This seems much like that, except twice as secretive.

And twice as crazy, in a way. One person’s official title is apparently “Head of Getting Moonshots Ready for Contact With the Real World” (“moonshots’ being [Astro Teller’s] catchall description for audacious innovations that have a slim chance of succeeding but might revolutionize the world if they do [i.e. “shoot for the moon”],” Gertner, par. 1); another has the title “Captain of Moonshots”. Yet out of this craziness, we already have Google Glass, as well as plans for driverless cars, high-altitude Wi-Fi balloons, and more.

Obviously they must be onto something, even if we don’t always understand or appreciate it: the many privacy concerns surrounding Google Glass is indicative of that. The previously-mentioned Head of Getting Moonshots Ready for Contact with the Real World’s (‘real world’ providing an interesting contrast to the theoretical world Google X seems to occupy) whole job appears to be framing these inventions in a practical way:

Later in the day, I take a walk around the Google campus with Obi Felten, 41, who is the team member who tries to keep the group grounded. In fact, DeVaul refers to her as “the normal person” in Rapid Eval[uation] meetings, someone who can bring everyone back to earth by asking simple questions like, Is it legal? Will anyone buy this? Will anyone like this?… Google X tries hard to remain on the practical side of crazy. (Gertner).

I am unsure what to think, on the whole, of this. It seems unlikely, due to practical and material concerns, that we would be getting Google Hoverboards or the Google Space Elevator in the near future. What this does show us is that Google X is attempting to make headway into places far different than simply search engines and social media. It’s tempting to think that they would be doing all this for their own company’s benefit — as the Mashable article points out, driverless cars mean drivers can safely and easily check their Gmail accounts while ‘driving’ — but it’s also interesting to see that maybe, just maybe, they’re also attempting to better the world while they do it.

Even if it’s a world under Google.


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