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Secret lab hides Google's boldest future projects

Claire Cain Miller and Nick Bilton (SMH) | Nov. 15, 2011
In a top-secret lab in an undisclosed San Francisco Bay Area location where robots run free, the future is being imagined.

In a top-secret lab in an undisclosed San Francisco Bay Area location where robots run free, the future is being imagined.

It's a place where your refrigerator could be connected to the internet, so it could order groceries when they ran low. Your dinner plate could post to a social network what you're eating. Your robot could go to the office while you stay home in your pyjamas. And you could, perhaps, take an elevator to outer space.

These are just a few of the dreams being chased at Google X, the clandestine lab where Google is tackling a list of 100 shoot-for-the-stars ideas. In interviews, a dozen people discussed the list; some work at the lab or elsewhere at Google, and some have been briefed on the project. But none would speak for attribution because Google is so secretive about the effort that many employees do not even know the lab exists.

Although most of the ideas on the list are in the conceptual stage, nowhere near reality, two people briefed on the project said one product would be released by the end of the year, although they would not say what it was.

"They're pretty far out in front right now," said Rodney Brooks, a professor emeritus at MIT's computer science and artificial intelligence lab and founder of Heartland Robotics. "But Google's not an ordinary company, so almost nothing applies."

At most Silicon Valley companies, innovation means developing online apps or ads, but Google sees itself as different. Even as Google has grown into a major corporation and tech start-ups are biting at its heels, the lab reflects its ambition to be a place where groundbreaking research and development are happening, in the tradition of Xerox PARC, which developed the modern personal computer in the 1970s.

A Google spokeswoman, Jill Hazelbaker, declined to comment on the lab, but said that investing in speculative projects was an important part of Google's DNA.

"While the possibilities are incredibly exciting, please do keep in mind that the sums involved are very small by comparison to the investments we make in our core businesses," she said.

At Google, which uses artificial intelligence techniques and machine learning in its search algorithm, some of the outlandish projects may not be as much of a stretch as they first appear, even though they defy the bounds of the company's main web search business.

 

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