googleX

How Google’s Secretive Project X Develops Radical Sci-Fi Ideas

Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

Some of Google’s most astonishing and ambitious projects have come out of a semi-secret facility called Google X.

Here’s what we know about the clandestine lab and its mission to solve the world’s issues with innovative solutions that seem – and often are – straight out of science fiction.

Origin story

The idea for X originated around 2009, according to a detailed report by Fast Company (FC), when Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page conceived the idea for a position called “Director of Other” which would oversee research ideas.

By 2010, this evolved into X with the Google driverless car project, which has grown leaps and bounds since its infancy.

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But X itself has evolved, as well. The lab is charged with ideas and projects referred to as “moonshots” that are often utterly improbable – but if successful in the long term, quite possibly revolutionary.

Now, lead scientist Astro Teller’s position is called “Captain of Moonshots,” and X has found success in projects including the Internet balloon project Loon and Google Glass (which we’ll get to later), along with a number of failures that are all part of a day’s work.

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What’s the X for?

Some say X is a stand-in for the lack of a better name, though others take the X for its roman numeral value, FC reports: the organization is looking for solutions 10 times better, or 10 years away from making an enormous impact.

The criteria are for an X project are, according to FC:

  1. must address problems that affect millions (or better, billions)
  2. must utilize radical, sci-fi solutions
  3. must tap into technologies that are, or will soon be, obtainable

Projects in progress

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In progress projects straight from the X lab include:

  • Google Project Loon: Google aims to provide Internet for all using sky-high balloons that send signal from the stratosphere.

  • Project Glass: Google’s augmented reality glasses allow hands free display and Internet access to wearers.

  • Google driverless car: Google’s driverless vehicles could revolutionize travel, allowing for safer and more fuel efficient transportation (and could launch as soon as 2017).

  • Google contact lens: Google’s smart contacts would be worn by diabetics to test the wearer’s glucose levels in tears.

Failed and frozen projects

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  • Space elevator: Google X confirmed rumors that yes, they were researching the development of an elevator that would take persons from ground to space by cable – but the project is on freeze until a material strong enough to support it is developed.
  • Teleportation: The Google X team also gave a serious look at teleportation before coming to the conclusion that the concept violates several laws of physics.
  • Hoverboard: Google Xers  developed a tiny hoverboard about the size of a quarter, but determined that the cost and complications of developing one in actual size were not justifiable.

Related moonshots include Calico, Google’s life expectancy project that aims to increase the human lifespan by up to 100 years. The project is not under Google X, but is considered a similarly sky-high idea.

As Forbes notes, up to 100 projects are picked up and dropped per year – so any number of wild ideas could emerge, and possibly succeed in the future.

Whether they are destined to take off or crash is besides the point. That risk, for X, is what makes the endeavor worthwhile, and in cases as amazing as they are rare, could change the world entirely.

Jennifer Markert