Hidden away, in a non-descript redbrick building in California, there are a group of innovators who most likely will change the world.
These people, some of the brightest minds on the planet, work for Google[x] the highly secretive research and development arm of the world’s favourite Internet search engine. It was there that the soon to be commercially available Google Glass was first thought up. It was there that the first driverless cars, which have recently caused countless law changes in the United States, were prototyped. And crazily enough it is those there who are at the forefront of designing a Hoverboard. While many of us can only imagine the future, these innovators can see it and quite often tangibly feel it.
The ethics of innovation is something not often thought about on a daily basis. In a world where design and technology changes at the speed of a single tweet, the concept that change and radical change might not be for the greater good is invariably alien. In the past 20 years we’ve seen our lives radically altered by innovation. Studies have shown that even our biology, our physical make-up is changing due to technology. The Internet has been at the forefront of this. And at the frontier of the Internet, there is one company. Google.
Over the course of the 20th century many people were asked what the year 2000 would look like. More often than not, amongst the claims of space tourism and alien adventures, the Hoverboard was the invention the majority deemed most likely to appear. 2000 came and went and our cities were distinctly hover-less. Indeed very few of the predicted outstanding leaps in technology have been achieved. Innovation since the millennium has been incremental. Mobile phones for instance, started off as great huge pieces of plastic the size of your head and became small pocket sized devices before innovation has taken them back to great huge pieces of plastic the size of your head. Even Apple — THE technology company of the 21st century — have been criticised for lacking truly outstanding ideas to rival the iPod or the iPhone. Some have argued in this world of global communication that we have reached the zenith of innovation. Google[x] is out to change all that.
Google motto 2004: Don't be evil Google motto 2010: Evil is tricky to define Google motto 2013: We make military robots
— Brent Butt (@BrentButt) December 16, 2013
It may be hard to believe, but these projects aren’t always solely for the benefit of humanity. Google Glass is expected to net their parent company upwards of $1 Billion in the next 25 years, whilst Project Loon — an initiative to provide wireless internet to remote areas through giant helium balloons — will inevitably involve an increase in the number of Google users. But there’s a darker side than just Google’s balance sheets, and it starts as it so often does in criticism of the internet giant, with one motto. ‘Don’t’ Be Evil’. The company’s sixth point on its official statement of core values. Initially seen as a direct riposte to the ‘invasion of privacy’ claims stemming from its search engine, it now carries a much deeper meaning. In December Google purchased Boston Dynamics a manufacturer of military robotics, and the company was exposed to the Google[x] treatment. The usual hyperbolic uproar of ‘Google drones’ was to be expected, but beyond that, the concept of twinning the brainpower of Google[x] with the military might of the US is enough to frighten the majority of the public.
Google’s problem lies in its ambition. As it attempts to take on more and more of these ‘moonshot’ projects, it becomes increasingly similar to the baddies in a dystopian film. Whereas the majority of the public think of Terminator when we think of robots, Google argues that the actual reality is more like IRobot (before the bit where Will Smith has to save the world naturally). To paraphrase their great competitor Apple, Google[x] is really for the crazy ones, the ones who think they can change the world.
The truth is though Google[x] fills a gap in the market that didn’t exist previously. In the past these ideas would and could have been initiated by any company big or small, but this kind of pie in the sky thinking has no place in the modern capitalist economy where small companies don’t feel they can aim big and big companies don’t want to scare shareholders by investing money in space elevators. Governments think that lack of innovation is the price we have to pay for the recession. But this money is out there, so why shouldn’t it be spent on the next Hoverboard? And while the possibilities of Google[x] are undoubtedly terrifying, that needn’t be such a bad thing. For in a non-descript redbrick building in California, there lies the potential for some [x]traordinary innovation.
By Jamie Timson