It was inevitable really. In fact, it’s surprising it hasn’t happened sooner. The riches of the web have made a band of men – the truly rich ones are all men – into fabulously wealthy geeks with more cash than anyone can use in his lifetime. With all that cash, crazy ideas were always going to get funded eventually.
Steve Jobs, the prototype for Tony Stark’s business ventures in the Iron Man movies – the Stark Expo is a Marvelized MacWorld – is gone. Bill Gates has used the money mountain he made from flinging half-baked versions of Windows into the world to become the geekiest philanthropist in history. But Sergey Brin? He’s doing the cool stuff. The superhero stuff.
At a LeWeb London panel starring Kevin Rose, Niklas Zennstrom and Chad Hurley, Mike Arrington challenged his interviewees on the ideas they invest in. If he were as rich as them, he contended, he’d be pumping money into jetpacks, deep space mining and other sci-fi style projects. So why weren’t they? The group fidgeted in their seats and failed to offer interesting answers to the question.
I think it all comes down to lack of vision. With Mark Zuckerberg still head down trying to dominate the social web, the mad ideas rest on one man: Sergey Brin. It is under his aegis that Google is diversifying into self-driving cars, wearable heads-up-displays, a neural network that sounds scarily like the beginnings of SkyNet and even that space mining project that Arrington so desperately wants someone to dig into.
Google Lab X is Brin pumping his billions into a real life Bat Cave, a realisation of the workshop where Tony Stark tinkers on armour and arc reactors. Lab X is dedicated to what Google calls “moonshot ideas” with other known projects including robotic avatars, a web-connected light bulb and, most brain-boggling of all, a space elevator.
On the back of quotes from Brin and fellow Google co-founder Larry Page, it seems the biggest aim of Lab X is to develop effective artificial intelligence. The public statements from Brin aren’t necessarily very comforting: “HAL had a lot of information, could piece it together, could rationalise it. Hopefully, [Google AI] would never have a bug like HAL did where he killed the occupants of the spaceship. But that level of artificial intelligence is what we’re striving for and I think we’ve made it a part of the way there.”
The question for any self-respecting comic book geek like me is this: in Serge Brin, are we dealing with Batman, Iron Man or Dr Doom? Because the comparison matters, when there’s a man with the money and resources to put together stuff we’ve only seen in movies.
The case for Brin as Batman is fairly compelling. While his parents are still alive, Brin has been fuelled by the oppressive conditions they experienced when he was a young boy growing up in Russia. His family emigrated to the United States when Brin was six, after his father faced discrimination in the university system. In The Google Story (2006), Brin’s father Michael says he was forced to abandon his dream of being an astronomer because of an unofficial policy of anti-semitism in Soviet universities.
Michael Brin claims in the book that the Communist Party disbarred Jews from the upper professional ranks and made it especially difficult for them to study in the physics departments of key institutions. It’s even said that Moscow State University required Jewish students to sit exams in different rooms to non-Jewish applicants – nicknamed “the gas chambers” – and marked them on a harsher scale.
Brin later recalled that a trip back to the Soviet Union reawakened his “fear of authority”, and spoke of his first impulse on seeing Soviet oppression: “to throw pebbles at a police car”. It’s not surprising, then, that Brin was reportedly extremely unhappy with Google’s efforts to pursue business in China while Eric Schmidt was leading the company’s efforts.
In the Brin as Batman thesis, he uses the vast wealth he has acquired from Google’s search success to fund toys and tools that allow him to thumb his nose at authority for a higher purpose. Certainly, while Google itself has been repeatedly found guilty of lax attitude to user privacy, it has often kicked out at government intrusion, publicising requests made to it and acting to create tools to assist dissidents abroad.
Brin as Tony Stark/Iron Man also has its strengths. Google I/O, with its zeppelin, skydivers and BMX bikers presenting Project Glass was as close to Tony Stark free-falling into Stark Expo as real life has yet managed. It isn’t too much of a leap to imagine Brin investigating a full suite of technological enhancements to go with his Google specs.
The arrogant, show-off quality of Tony Stark is also present in Brin. He was quietly working in the background while the grey corporate placeholder era of Eric Schmidt was proving that Google could be professional, but he has been growing in confidence ever since Page ascended to chief executive. Brin has got the freedom to play and the cash to bankroll it.
And that’s where the worrying part comes in. Because what if Brin is more Victor Von Doom than Bruce Wayne? Certainly, like all compelling villains, Dr Doom believes he is doing what he does for good reasons. That’s the kind of rationale you tend to find in Brin’s actions – and in a lot of Google PR.
Brin is pushing Google to work on artificial intelligence projects, “hoping” they won’t end up killing the crew. He is behind robot cars and desperately wants them on the roads. He’s set to push Project Glass as hard as possible to make it the computer everyone has strapped to their heads.
A 2003 documentary, The Corporation, posited a theory that companies, were they people, would be psychopaths. For all Google’s nodding and winking in the direction of its unofficial slogan “don’t be evil”, it is not different from any other mega-corporation these days: it craves ever-increasing market penetration and, relatively uniquely, massive amounts of information about everyone who comes into contact with it.
Brin has his Bat Cave, and some of that Stark showmanship, but ask me to nail my colours to the mast and I’d say the Doom-like desire to dominate is strong in him. Most journalists know this – which is why we have kept, and will continue to keep, such a close eye on the mastermind of Mountain View.