There’s always something going on with Google. Earlier this month, Elon Musk, ever a colorful character in the high tech world, said that Google was building an army of robots that could destroy mankind. How about that for a testimonial? Musk’s statement reminded me of a post I wrote on Google last year. Since I’m on vacation, I thought I’d reprise it this week:
Google is perhaps the most intriguing company in the high tech industry. Like a rockstar Zen master, the company defies convention, breaks rules, and somehow remains inscrutable. Google continues to expand in seemingly unrelated, but nonetheless fascinating, technological directions. One begins to imagine that there is a method to its madness, a roadmap of sorts.
Money is the fuel
In 2013, Google reported earnings of $59.9 billion with $12.9 billion in net income. Google makes its money primarily from one business: advertising enabled by search. Google is by far the number one search engine on the Internet, generating staggering amounts of money that practically guarantee a perpetual revenue stream. Search revenues have enabled Google to invest in a lot of other businesses—most of which are currently burning, not making, money.
If you were Sergey Brin or Larry Page, billionaires at a young age, well above average in intelligence, and figuratively sitting on top of the world, wouldn’t making money be fairly low on your priority list? Particularly if, as mentioned, you’ve already solved that pesky revenue problem?
Freedom is the priority
So, you’re Sergey and Larry, your investors are happy and pretty much leave you alone. You have your critics, sure, but the media by and large sings your praises. You’ve made Eric Schmidt, an amiable, professorial man, the establishment face of your company, and you’ve encouraged him to act as a sort of roving ambassador, the buffer between you and the outside world.
Now you are pretty much free to do your thing. You hire the most brilliant minds you can find, like-minded individuals on whom you bestow a tremendous amount of freedom. The freedom to explore their passions, and possibly turn them into money-making enterprises.
Which would be nice, but it is not the ultimate goal.
The future is the goal
We’ve come to believe that there is no specific objective at Google, no “OK-people-we’ve-achieved-everything-let’s-all-go-home-now” end game. But Google certainly has goals, the most important of which, we believe, is no less than to create the future. And because, at any point in time there will always be “the future,” Google’s primary goal is to be—forever.
You’re Sergey and Larry, and you think “why shouldn’t we define the future, a future we’d want to live in and would want our kids and their kids to live in.” You may not know exactly what that future is going to look like, but you have ideas—lots of ideas—and great employees, and a seemingly endless supply of disposable income.
This leads to all sorts of interesting areas to develop, such as…maps and driverless cars, smart homes and offices, wearable technology, robots, and, well…eternity.
Google maps and driverless cars
The concept of driverless cars is based on an extremely simple premise. If you commute an hour a day, five days a week, that’s 251 hours a year of mostly unhealthy sensory input and mind-numbing repetition that could be much better spent making yourself smarter, healthier, happier—and safer. Multiply that by the number of people who commute by car, are taxi drivers, chauffeurs, truckers, and bus drivers, and you can see that driverless transportation has the potential to provide a huge societal benefit.
Of course, the execution of this premise on a scale that would serve entire populations is a massive undertaking and borders on folly.
Nonetheless, Google is laying the foundation. It starts with Google Maps, capturing every square inch of the world’s topography in a massive database that enables driverless navigation. The driverless vehicles of today’s Google are prototypes that prove the concept, logging over 300,000 accident-free miles and providing continuous real-time data that is being used to refine the technologies.
Imagine fleets of vehicles in all shapes and sizes, with a wide range of cruising capacities, built for every conceivable terrain and weather condition. Now imagine the use cases and how that might transform life as we know it today—for the greater good.
Larry and Sergey aren’t doing this out of sheer altruism. There are potentially massive amounts of money to be made. And the potentially enormous goodwill (and ego gratification) in shaping humanity’s future are healthy incentives. And they do it because they can.
If the future is a puzzle, Google is betting that maps and driverless vehicles will be essential puzzle pieces.
The smart home
In January of this year, Google announced that it was purchasing Nest for $3.2 billion. Nest was founded by Tony Fadell, formerly an Apple engineer known for his creativity and design expertise. The company’s mission is to equip the smart home with smart controls, such as thermostats and smoke detectors, that you can control from your smartphone or other device.
It’s difficult to say what Sergey and Larry were thinking paying that much for a company that a year ago was valued at $800 million and whose 2013 revenues approached $300 million. Clearly, it’s not about the money. The Google founders see another link to their future, wherein homes and offices are intelligent, programmable, and energy self-sufficient.
Combine the brilliant Fadell and his team with the huge knowledge base that Google has already amassed building and maintaining cost-effective data centers all over the world, and you begin to imagine other links to a Google future.
One of the great sci-fi flicks of any era was “Terminator” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, released in, yes, 1984. In the movie, the menacing android is capable of many things. One memorable ability is that he can scan and process an area while real-time data scrolls across his view. He is a supercomputer able to quickly analyze the incoming data and make critical decisions.
Does a human being wearing Google Glass compare? No, but the concept is not that far removed. Google Glass is voice-enabled. You can ask questions and get answers from the web. You can have it translate speech for you. It is location, time, and date-aware, and provides unsolicited information and reminders. It allows you to record and share photos and videos. It enables navigation through Google Maps. You can speak and send text messages.
If Google Glass has downsides (see here and here), the concept of artificial intelligence effortlessly coupled with the human brain is still a powerful combination. In Google’s vision of the future, it would only get more powerful, less obtrusive, and better integrated with its users.
Late last year Google bought eight companies associated with the development of robots. And maybe with a touch of irony, Google has assigned Andy Rubin, the original creator of Android, to head up its robotics division.
Turns out, robots are being developed for a plethora of applications—unmanned space exploration, surgery and medicine, disaster response, manufacturing, prosthetics and third-arm uses, home helpers, entertainment, policing, warfare, and robotic brains.
Long a fixture of science fiction, robots are now fully in the realm of science, but do they fit with a Google future? We’re sure that Larry and Sergey believe that at least some, if not all of those robotic applications, will become everyday reality. And Google can be, and therefore must be, at the vanguard.
Finally, and most critical, if you’re Larry and Sergey, and you intend to pursue nothing less than the future of humankind, you must figure out how to live longer, a lot longer.
Google has made a lot of great hires over the years, but none perhaps more telling than Ray Kurzweil as director of its engineering lab in December of 2012. Kurzweil has been referred to as the modern-day Thomas Edison, and has gained a deserved reputation as a futurist and visionary. (We’ve followed Kurzweil ever since working at one of his companies, Kurzweil Computer Systems, back in the 1990s.)
Kurzweil is a proponent of a legendary prediction that is referred to as the singularity. This is the moment when machine intelligence surpasses that of human intelligence, and when humans will be able to augment their minds and bodies with genetic alterations, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. By then, says Kurzweil, we will effectively have achieved, through technology, the ability to live forever.
Kurzweil will likely not live long enough to witness the singularity. But Larry and Sergey? They’ll be in their 50s, richer than Croesus, and majority owners of the technologies that will enable immortality, the mother of all futuristic puzzle pieces.