THE SXSW ISSUE
The week of March 8, 2015

These Google X ‘moonshots’ will radically change the world

By Taylor Hatmaker

You’ve probably heard of Google’s “mad science division.” It’s the place where half-kooky, half-crazy-like-a-fox ideas like Google Glass are dreamt up, bubbling up toward the surface of reality until the time is right. Not all of the dreams make it, and that’s OK too. For Google X, the process itself—the failure and the iteration—is a critical part of the pursuit.

Founded in 2010, Google X is synonymous with its so-called “director of moonshots” and lead semi-mad scientist, Astro Teller. His own mythology is so unique that it hasn’t quite been subsumed into Google itself. His grandfather Edward Teller is widely regarded as the father of the atomic bomb. After mastering in “Symbolic and Heuristic Computation” at Stanford, Teller went on to obtain a Ph.D. in computer science, specifically artificial intelligence, from Carnegie Mellon. His first name is a high school nickname that predicted his role at Google, where he’s been encouraging the company’s most theoretical minds to shoot for the moon since 2010.

Teller is the lead visionary at Google X—and it’s hard to imagine the role belonging to someone else. Teller will keynote South by Southwest 2015 with a talk on the main stage, but this isn’t his first rodeo. In 2013, Teller gave a SXSW talk on “Building a Moonshot Factory,” which is his usual way of describing Google’s most out there department. I don’t yet know what he’ll introduce this year, but I’ll be right there perched on the edge of my seat to hear about it.

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Part of the reason we don’t know is that Google X has many, many irons in the fire. Its two most well-known are the self-driving car, now well into adorable prototype territory, and Google Glass, the futuristic data-visor that Google seems to be quietly at work remixing into its next manifestation. But that’s not all. Not by a long shot.

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Project Loon

The craziest thing about Project Loon isn’t the idea—to create a network of Internet-connected balloons floating at 60,000 feet. It’s how close it is to becoming reality. The balloons are designed to fly roughly twice as high as commercial air traffic, where ideally they’ll hover about in the stratosphere for more than 100 days in one flight. Google is working on that last bit as we speak.

For Google X, the process itself—the failure and the iteration—is a critical part of the pursuit.

“Signals are transmitted from the balloons to a specialized Internet antenna mounted to the side of a home or workplace, or directly to LTE-enabled devices. Web traffic that travels through the balloon network is ultimately relayed to our local telecommunications partners’ ground stations, where it connects to pre-existing Internet infrastructure.”

It sounds like science fiction, but Project Loon is well on its way to serving the global communities Google wishes to connect. “Loon is a huge undertaking, and we’ve made huge progress,” Google’s Sundar Pichai told a packed room at Mobile World Congress in early March. “Two years ago, we could barely keep the balloon up for three days, and it served 3G.”

Today? Google’s Internet balloons can stay up for as long as six months—exceeding Google’s goal not by a moonshot-worthy factor of 10 but solidly doubling it. According to an in-depth new report by the Verge, Google’s record is 187 days aloft, enough time for the balloon to make nine laps around the globe. After Google builds the infrastructure, it will invite carrier partners to provide LTE service. Today’s version of Project Loon has come a long way—and fast.

In just a few years, the system has evolved from a styrofoam beer cooler crammed full of electronics to a longevity-minded model, each worth a reported “tens of thousands of dollars” and capable of staying aloft for months on end. The Loon balloons are cleverly designed: Each one is capable of only ascent and descent, relying on the Earth’s naturally occurring wind currents, which they catch a ride on at varying altitudes. Google is now chatting up service partners and, in true Google X form, pushing its designs to the brink.

The best way to follow Project Loon is through its Google+ page, where the team posts regular updates on the milestones its sky-high project hits—usually with video. 

Project Titan

Project Loon isn’t Google X’s only approach to an Internet in the sky. Last year, Google bought drone maker Titan Aerospace, reportedly pulling the rug out from under Facebook. Both Silicon Valley titans are working on the same problem: blanketing the globe in a high-speed Internet beamed down from above. Facebook’s approach—massive unmanned aircraft capable of staying in the skies for years at a time—is decidedly less Loon and more Department of Defense.

The craziest thing about Project Loon isn’t the idea; it’s how close it is to becoming reality.

Still, with Titan, Google has an answer to even that, and according to Pichai, Titan and Loon could work in tandem. “We are thinking about how Wi-Fi and cell networks work together and how to make that seamless,” Pichai told an audience at MWC 2015. Titan is now about as far along as Project Loon was a couple of years ago, with its “first major steps” ahead in the next few months. 

project-wing

Project Wing

A low-power global Internet network isn’t Google X’s only skyborne undertaking. As we noted at the time, Google X revealed its plans for Project Wing, an autonomous drone delivery system, with an in-depth report in the Atlantic last August. It’s already been two years in the making. Last year, the delivery system was being tested out in low-density parts of Australia, where the mini-helicopter hybrids whisked everything from cattle vaccines to first aid kits toward their targets.

Project Wing might conjure thoughts of Amazon same-day delivery, but in typical Google X fashion, the company is thinking of a broad swath of applications. “From what we imagine, there [are] multiple different perspectives or use cases in delivery, whether in urban environment, or rural, or disaster relief situations; it has a great amount of potential,” a Google spokesperson told the Daily Dot.

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Makani: Wind turbines, reimagined

If Internet balloons and drone-delivered dog treats weren’t enough crazy flying things, Google X also houses Makani, a wind power company by the same name that the company acquired in 2013.

“With some longer term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives.”

Makani publicly tracks its progress on Google+, and according to a November 2014 update, it’s hard at work developing its kite power tech:

If the on-board computer system is the brains of our energy kite, we’ve spent the last few months training our kites to get smarter. Through field testing, we can use real flight data that we gather ourselves to not only improve our models, but also to make our software more robust.

In addition to making the software smarter, we’ve put two extra flight computers on board our 600 kilowatt energy kite. Of course, redundant systems help keep the kite operating safely even when something unexpected happens. But also, we’ve designed the software to check which of the computers is the most fit to guide the kite along the flight path that maximizes the amount of energy it can generate. 

The idea is that a Makani kite imitates the motion of the end of a single blade on a wind turbine but does so much more efficiently. The result, in theory, is a means of generating energy that cuts geographic limitations and hundreds of tons of steel out of the equation.

Google X and sci-fi life sciences

Google X isn’t all balloons and crazy Internet planes. In fact, the division has an entire department dedicated to a sort of sci-fi approach to the life sciences. Under this umbrella, Google’s deep interest in biotech can flourish in new directions, all within the infinite intricacies and data channels of the human body.

That’s the thinking that gave rise to a blood sugar-aware contact lens, first revealed to the public in January 2014. As of mid-2014, the lens—not yet cutely or cleverly branded—was drumming up interest from pharmaceutical heavyweight Novartis. (Google X might be a moonshot factory, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a business, too.)

“Our dream is to use the latest technology in the miniaturization of electronics to help improve the quality of life for millions of people,” Google cofounder Sergey Brin said of the partnership, which will look into “smart lens” optical applications for diabetes patients as well as anyone who needs reading glasses.

Google’s mad-science division works on its own time, alternately making exponential leaps forward and falling flat on its face.

“For people living with presbyopia who can no longer read without glasses, the ‘smart lens’ has the potential to provide accommodative vision correction to help restore the eye’s natural autofocus on near objects in the form of an accommodative contact lens or intraocular lens as part of the refractive cataract treatment.” 

Google has deep ties to the biotech industry that it’s begun making its own independent inroads with. In 2013, the company founded Calico, a research entity that would focus on longevity, neurodegeneration, and aging—some of the Google founders’ longstanding interests in medicine. “Illness and aging affect all our families,” said Google CEO Larry Page. “With some longer term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives.”

Brin’s wife (the two are now separated) Anne Wojcicki is the CEO of Google-backed genomics company 23andme, which in January announced a partnership with Google and longtime Google biotech partner Genentech for a $60 million initiative for Parkinson’s disease research.

astroteller

Last year, Google announced the Baseline Study, a big data approach to biotech, all aimed around prevention. As we reported in July: “The goal… is to push medicine from treatment to prevention. The hope is the progress made in the Baseline Study will lead to much earlier detection of deadly diseases like cancer and heart disease, instead of catching them once they’ve already caused damage.”

Beyond biotech and reimagining energy and connectivity from the sky-down, there’s no telling what else Google X is cooking on that it’s not quite ready to reveal. Google’s mad science division works on its own time, alternately making exponential leaps forward and falling flat on its face. Both outcomes are rich with data to be gleaned, designs to hone, and a future that’s being reimagined, one project at a time, by turning everything we think we know upside down and giving it all a good shake.

Photo by Thomas Leth-Olsen/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed