As I See It: Googling The Future
February 10, 2014 Victor Rozek
Stop the presses! (Or whatever the digital equivalent of that would be.) Nick Bilton sees the future of technology and its name is Google. OK, so Bilton may be more perceptive than prophetic, but given the direction of industry drift, his analysis appears to be spot on. Looking at the galaxy of tech giants greedily circling the sphere of 21st century opportunity, there are signs of orbital decay.
Microsoft and IBM have lost their sizzle. Like Greece they’re still cashing in on their Golden Age, but time and technology seem to be passing them by. Both Facebook and Twitter are one-trick ponies, Apple has lost its guiding light, and Yahoo struggles to be Google-lite. While the competition “seems to be stuck in the present” says Bilton, Google is venturing into territory where no multinational, cloud-inhabiting, search engine-wielding company has gone before. And like Star Trek’s Borg, it’s gobbling up all other life forms it encounters.
Since February 2001, Google has acquired an astonishing 143 companies. That’s about one per month, roughly the frequency of lucid thoughts attributed to Miley Cyrus. Bilton, author of Hatching Twitter and scribe for the New York Times Bits Blog, reasons that if the world ended tomorrow, Google would win if only by virtue of having accumulated the most toys–or at least the companies that make them.
But not just any toys. Google is not only snatching up promising software companies and online advertising firms. It already has closets full of those. Now Google is stocking its toy chest with fun stuff like self-driving cars, machines with more artificial intelligence than a newscaster, and airborne wind turbines. In particular, Bilton is impressed with the series of acquisitions Google made since last December. While kids were unwrapping robots under the Christmas tree, Google was wrapping up no fewer than seven robotics companies. What they’ll do with an army of robots is anybody’s guess–maybe they can deliver Amazon purchases? But deep in the bowels of GoogleX, they’re canning nuts and bolts with artificial intelligence and creating the latest incarnation of Gort (Michael Rennie’s enigmatic traveling companion, he of “Klaatu barada nikto” fame).
Brad Stone, senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, describes GoogleX as “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.” It’s the latest in Skunk Works, if skunks indulged in nerd fantasies and played with virtually limitless budgets, that is.
As befitting a company that wants to brand the future, GoogleX is ambitious. In 2012, the lab received a tidy $6.8 billion with which to create toys and technologies that will power the future. But the lab is not content with merely creating novelties such as Google Glass and robo-cars (which, incidentally, have successfully navigated over 1,000 miles of California’s frenetic roads without the need for remedial bodywork). According to its flawlessly-named director Astro Teller, the lab will tackle “anything which is a huge problem for humanity.” Provided they think they can make a dent in it. From cancer treatments to space elevators, the sky is literally the limit.
One of those oversized problems is how to bring Internet access to the developing nations of the world. Google is reportedly working on a solution that would mount “broadband transmitters on high-altitude balloons.” But Google’s interests are not limited to the practical. “Absurdity,” says Stone, “is not a barrier to consideration.” Levitation and teleportation (which would really upset the self-driving car team) were at least contemplated by GoogleX. Whether such Asimovian projects were actually funded is not clear. Still, according to MIT Technology Review, quantum teleportation of information (not matter) has been achieved by a team of European physicists–a precursor to the possibility of building a quantum, NSA-proof Internet. Google may have its own plans for getting the NSA off its back.
If Google aspires to solve the world’s pressing problems, it will find no shortage of opportunity because humanity has shown no shortage of hubris. It’s the what-could-possibly-go-wrong brand of arrogance that allows us to build nuclear reactors near earthquake faults and tsunami zones. And while Google isn’t likely to change human nature, it may be able to mitigate some of its more lethal consequences. Robots to the rescue.
Google’s recent acquisition of Boston Dynamics, one of the premiere builders of ambulatory mechanical life-forms, has given rise to wide-ranging speculation as to their possible uses. At Google’s disposal are two and four-legged robots that can conquer hills, scale walls, and climb trees. Plus, one that has been timed on a treadmill, running faster than Olympian Usain Bolt–which is useful if you need something from the store right now.
Beyond developing robots for venues such as home use, industrial application, and even elder care, perhaps the most urgent need for agile automatons is in the field of disaster recovery. A timely example is Fukushima, where massive amounts of radiation are still being released into the air and dumped into the ocean. That will not change for the foreseeable future. The men working in the damaged reactors are receiving lethal doses of radiation. Their exposure time must be strictly limited, which is a choice between cancer now and cancer later. If robots could be designed to handle the cleanup, it would save time, mitigate environmental havoc, and preserve the lives and health of countless people. Paradoxically, the right use of technology is now required to clean up the wrong use of technology.
Another potentially life-saving, albeit double-edged application for robotics is military use. The possibility of fighting wars with reduced casualties and fewer incidents of PTSD is compelling. But for those who traffic in war, the allure of unleashing “soldiers” that kill without fear, conscience, or remorse, is equally compelling, and it eliminates much of the rationale for self restraint. Perhaps Google was reasserting its commitment not to be evil when it announced it has no intention of developing battlefield robots. In any event, there would be no reason, as Isaac Asimov suggests, to command a robot not to do harm, if we never command it to do harm in the first place.
Man’s fascination with robots dates back hundreds of years before Christ. In the 4th century BC, Greek mathematician Archytas postulated a mechanical bird powered by steam that he called “The Pigeon.” It might have caught on but it probably pooped too much. A century later in China, texts reveal that an innovative fellow named Yan Shi presented his king with a “human-shaped mechanical figure.” Aristotle believed that human equality could someday be achieved when automatons made it possible to abolish slavery. And although that hope has yet to be realized, robots have quietly become an inextricable part of the technological landscape. They build our cars, perform surgery, do standup comedy, and blast off into space to roam remote planets.
What direction Google will take with its robotic menagerie remains to be seen. But one thing is certain. If, as Daniel Wilson posits, robots have “all this pop-culture real estate that they take up in people’s minds,” with an assist from Google, they’re about to acquire more ground.