Google has always been an artificial intelligence company, so it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that Ray Kurzweil, one of the leading scientists in the field, joined the search giant late last year. Nonetheless, the hiring raised some eyebrows, since Kurzweil is perhaps the most prominent proselytizer of “hard AI,” which argues that it is possible to create consciousness in an artificial being. Add to this Google’s revelation that it is using techniques of deep learning to produce an artificial brain, and a subsequent hiring of the godfather of computer neural nets Geoffrey Hinton, and it would seem that Google is becoming the most daring developer of AI, a fact that some may consider thrilling and others deeply unsettling. Or both.
Space elevators, teleportation, hoverboards, and driverless cars: The top-secret Google X innovation lab opens up about what it does--and how it thinks. … X does not employ your typical Silicon Valley types. Google already has a large lab division, Google Research, that is devoted mainly to computer science and Internet technologies. The distinction is sometimes framed this way: Google Research is mostly bits; Google X is mostly atoms. In other words, X is tasked with making actual objects that interact with the physical world, which to a certain extent gives logical coherence to the four main projects that have so far emerged from X: driverless cars, Google Glass, high-altitude Wi-Fi balloons, and glucose-monitoring contact lenses. Mostly, X seeks out people who want to build stuff, and who won't get easily daunted. Inside the lab, now more than 250 employees strong, I met an idiosyncratic troupe of former park rangers, sculptors, philosophers, and machinists; one X scientist has won two Academy Awards for special effects. Teller himself has written a novel, worked in finance, and earned a PhD in artificial intelligence. One recent hire spent five years of his evenings and weekends building a helicopter in his garage. It actually works, and he flew it regularly, which seems insane to me. But his technology skills alone did not get him the job. The helicopter did. "The classic definition of an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing," says DeVaul. "And people like that can be extremely useful in a very focused way. But these are really not X people. What we want, in a sense, are people who know less and less about more and more." … If there's a master plan behind X, it's that a frictional arrangement of ragtag intellects is the best hope for creating products that can solve the world's most intractable issues. Yet Google X, as Teller describes it, is an experiment in itself--an effort to reconfigure the process by which a corporate lab functions, in this case by taking incredible risks across a wide variety of technological domains, and by not hesitating to stray far from its parent company's business. We don't yet know if this will prove to be genius or folly. There's actually no historical model, no precedent, for what these people are doing.
Why the search leader’s antitrust deal fell apart ... The more Europeans rely on Google, however, the more they’ve come to fear it, making it an easy target for politicians. Last November members of the European Parliament voted 384 to 174 for a symbolic proposal to break up the search giant into two separate pieces—its monolithic search engine and everything else. In Spain, Google has been forced to shut down Google News over copyright issues. In Germany, it has stopped collecting images for its Street View navigation service because of privacy concerns. The memory of Stasi secret police surveillance in the former East makes such issues especially sensitive. More recently, Google has been forced to comply with an EU “right to be forgotten” ruling and to remove embarrassing items from its search database at the behest of users. ... Critics now draw from a wealth of evidence about the decision-making inside the Googleplex during this period, owing to perhaps the strangest twist in the entire case. Earlier this year every other page of a staff memo written by the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Competition was mistakenly included in the response to a Freedom of Information request made by the Wall Street Journal. The 169-page FTC document quotes liberally from internal e-mails and memos, during the time when Google’s partners were noticing many of these changes to the search engine—and what they contained seemed incriminating.
I suppose, the latest expression of that now vintage and troublingly prophetic bumper sticker: In Google we trust. ... My campus tour has something of the quality of a west coast Tomorrow’s World. It involves meetings with the head of Google Translate, Barak Turovsky, who places a phone on a table and has it talk to me in English directly from his spoken Russian; the cartographer-in-chief of Google Maps, Manik Gupta, who is excited about current efforts to map the unmappable – Indian villages, the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef – using backpackers and local knowledge. I listen to one of the two or three key brains behind the Search algorithm itself, Ben Gomes, who speaks 10 to the dozen of “natural language generation” and “deep learning networks” (and, inevitably, of the “holy grail” of answering users’ questions before they have been asked). I walk and talk with the Brit Alex Gawley, who has just reimagined Gmail for mobile. I have my mind suitably boggled by some of the more maverick voices at Google X, the company’s in-house futurology lab, including Mike Cassidy, whose Project Loon aims to bring Wi-Fi to 4 billion currently disconnected people, with the stratospheric use of tens of thousands of hot-air balloons ... From the outside it can appear as if Google is trying to solve every problem, colonise every market, all at once. As a company, it seems dangerously – or thrillingly, depending on your point of view – addicted to ubiquity. ... Corporate cultures only become a source of wider interest when their attached businesses are wildly successful. ... The more you spend in that deliberately pervasive culture, though, the more people you speak to, the more you realise that Google employees are not only living the Google dream, they are also selling a version of that fantasy to the world.
As Nadella, a 24-year veteran of the company, would have known, the process of turning a Microsoft Research project into a product would often happen slowly, if at all. That's partly by design. The company's research group was set up in isolation from the product teams to allow researchers to envision the future without worrying about how their inventions will make money or fit into the company's mission. ... But Nadella's tight deadline left executives with no time to debate the separation of church and state. ... Microsoft is overhauling its research arm and the way it works with the rest of the company. The goal is to quickly identify technology with the most potential and get it into customers' hands before a competitor replicates it. ... To break down the walls between its research group and the rest of the company, Microsoft reassigned about half of its more than 1,000 research staff in September 2014 to a new group called MSR NExT. Its focus is on projects with greater impact to the company rather than pure research. Meanwhile, the other half of Microsoft Research is getting pushed to find more significant ways it can contribute to the company's products.
Our data-saturated age enables us to examine our work habits and office quirks with a scrutiny that our cubicle-bound forebears could only dream of. Today, on corporate campuses and within university laboratories, psychologists, sociologists and statisticians are devoting themselves to studying everything from team composition to email patterns in order to figure out how to make employees into faster, better and more productive versions of themselves. ... Five years ago, Google — one of the most public proselytizers of how studying workers can transform productivity — became focused on building the perfect team. In the last decade, the tech giant has spent untold millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives. Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions) to which traits the best managers share (unsurprisingly, good communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical; more shocking, this was news to many Google managers). ... No matter how researchers arranged the data, though, it was almost impossible to find patterns — or any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference. ... kept coming across research by psychologists and sociologists that focused on what are known as ‘‘group norms.’ ... Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound. Team members may behave in certain ways as individuals — they may chafe against authority or prefer working independently — but when they gather, the group’s norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage deference to the team. ... noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared. First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ ... Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. ... to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations.
He bounces from smart locks, to smart lights, to a smart shower, to smart shoe insoles. It almost backfires when a Samsung representative demonstrating a smart refrigerator reaches out and flips his badge back over, asking, “What are you, press?” But his name doesn’t mean anything to her, and Pichai just casts an amused sideways glance and dives in with questions. “So, what can I ask the fridge?” he wants to know. Various versions of this same scene play out again and again. ... With $74.5 billion in annual revenue last year, Google is by far the largest (and only profitable) business under Alphabet. Indeed, Google has seven different products that more than a billion people use: Search, Gmail, YouTube, Android, Chrome, Maps, and its app and media vending machine, the Google Play Store. ... Google is sprinting to attract its “next billion” users. For the most part, these are people in the developing world; people who will go online, for the very first time, using one of Google’s Android-powered handsets. Which puts Google in the position of being seen as both a corporate NSA and modern East India Company. ... Android was, very literally, made for this moment. Its entire point is to be customized, reconfigured, and personalized for a world full of people across a range of sizes, shapes, configurations, and price points. Sure, signs for the $550 Nexus abound, but you can also score a cheap Android phone in Delhi, like a Lava Atom X, for less than $40 — and that’s without a contract. It will, Pichai thinks, change the status quo not just in India, but the entire world.
Since its July launch Pokémon GO, a free “augmented reality” game by Niantic Labs in which players capture virtual characters mapped to real-world locations, has piled up superlatives. Apple said the game had more downloads in its first week than any other app in history. One in ten Americans plays Pokémon GO daily, according to App Annie, and SurveyMonkey estimates that the game is hauling in as much as $6 million a day from in-app purchases in the U.S. alone (the game is available in 37 countries). ... Just 12 months ago Hanke was an increasingly restless Google employee (he launched Google Earth, among other things) and his company, Niantic, was an overlooked gaming skunkworks lost in the search giant. As Google reorganized itself into Alphabet, Niantic looked likely to be rolled back into the company’s Android division or simply shut down. But Google had the wisdom to let Hanke seek outside investors and spin the company out. That paved the way for Hanke to approach Nintendo and the Pokémon Co., which oversees the brand’s intellectual property, and make the smartest mobile-gaming deal of all time. ... As of May 2016 Pokémon products had grossed $45 billion in lifetime sales.
Next year it will be 60 years since people first witnessed the majesty of a satellite being launched into orbit: Sputnik 1, hurled into the night sky in Kazakhstan early on October 5th 1957. ... Just 15 years separated the launch of the first satellite and the return of the last man from the moon, years in which anything seemed possible. But having won the space race, America saw no benefit in carrying on. Instead it developed a space shuttle meant to make getting to orbit cheap, reliable and routine. More than 100 shuttle flights between 1981 to 2011 went some way to realising the last of those goals, despite two terrible accidents. The first two were never met. Getting into space remained a risky and hideously expensive proposition, taken up only by governments and communications companies, each for their own reasons. ... New rockets, though, are not the only exciting development. The expense of getting into space during the 1980s and 1990s led some manufacturers to start shrinking the satellites used for some sorts of mission, creating “smallsats”. Since then the amount a given size of satellite can do has been boosted by developments in computing and electronics. This has opened up both new ways of doing old jobs and completely novel opportunities. ... No single technology ties together this splendid gaggle of ambitions. But there is a common technological approach that goes a long way to explaining it; that of Silicon Valley. Even if for now most of the money being spent in space remains with old government programmes and incumbent telecom providers, space travel is moving from the world of government procurement and aerospace engineering giants to the world of venture-capital-funded startups and business plans that rely on ever cheaper services provided to ever more customers.
The difference between the 4004 and the Skylake is the difference between computer behemoths that occupy whole basements and stylish little slabs 100,000 times more powerful that slip into a pocket. It is the difference between telephone systems operated circuit by circuit with bulky electromechanical switches and an internet that ceaselessly shuttles data packets around the world in their countless trillions. It is a difference that has changed everything from metal-bashing to foreign policy, from the booking of holidays to the designing of H-bombs. ... Moore’s law is not a law in the sense of, say, Newton’s laws of motion. But Intel, which has for decades been the leading maker of microprocessors, and the rest of the industry turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. ... That fulfilment was made possible largely because transistors have the unusual quality of getting better as they get smaller; a small transistor can be turned on and off with less power and at greater speeds than a larger one. ... “There’s a law about Moore’s law,” jokes Peter Lee, a vice-president at Microsoft Research: “The number of people predicting the death of Moore’s law doubles every two years.” ... making transistors smaller has no longer been making them more energy-efficient; as a result, the operating speed of high-end chips has been on a plateau since the mid-2000s ... while the benefits of making things smaller have been decreasing, the costs have been rising. This is in large part because the components are approaching a fundamental limit of smallness: the atom. ... One idea is to harness quantum mechanics to perform certain calculations much faster than any classical computer could ever hope to do. Another is to emulate biological brains, which perform impressive feats using very little energy. Yet another is to diffuse computer power rather than concentrating it, spreading the ability to calculate and communicate across an ever greater range of everyday objects in the nascent internet of things. ... in 2012 the record for maintaining a quantum superposition without the use of silicon stood at two seconds; by last year it had risen to six hours. ... For a quantum algorithm to work, the machine must be manipulated in such a way that the probability of obtaining the right answer is continually reinforced while the chances of getting a wrong answer are suppressed.
The company’s mission: to build a Bell Labs of aging research. It hoped to extend the human life span by coming up with a breakthrough as important, and as useful to humanity, as the transistor has been. ... Google’s founders created an academic-biotech hybrid they call an R&D company to follow up on such clues, providing nearly unlimited funding to a group of top researchers. ... despite the hype around its launch—Time magazine asked, “Can Google Solve Death?”—Calico has remained a riddle, a super-secretive company that three years in hasn’t published anything of note, rebuffs journalists, and asks visiting scientists to sign nondisclosure agreements. ... Right now, there’s no proven test for a person’s “biological” age; finding one would be scientifically useful and possibly lucrative. ... For all these diseases, aging is the single biggest risk factor. An 80-year-old is 40 times as likely to die from cancer as someone middle-aged. The risk for Alzheimer’s rises by 600 times. But what if it were possible to postpone all these deaths by treating aging itself? … The experiment will generate millions of readings—for levels of growth hormones and glucose, among other things. Churchill wouldn’t say how much Calico is paying, but simply feeding that many mice could cost $3 million.
Self-driving technology has become a fixation for Kalanick. Developing a driverless car, he’s often said, is “existential” to Uber. If a competitor managed to get there first, it could easily replicate Uber’s core service (shuttling passengers) without its single largest cost (paying drivers). ... According to the legal complaint filed on behalf of Google’s driverless car division—as almost everyone at Waymo still refers to it—the company began investigating Levandowski last summer after learning that Uber had paid about $700 million for his months-old company. Google’s suit, filed in a San Francisco federal court, says its investigators uncovered a trove of digital evidence that hint at an unprecedented theft. According to the suit, Levandowski used his company laptop to download 14,000 design files from Google’s car project. ... At issue is a business that both companies believe will be worth hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars a year. And though both companies like to portray driverless cars as some near-term inevitability, this dispute shows just how messy the race to get there could prove to be.
Whether the result of a programmer’s error or hackers working for a nation-state, data leaks are the new norm. So executives are coming to terms with the idea that it might be more economical to nip coding issues in the bud before they lead to bigger—and messier—problems down the road. ... But it’s not that simple. Too many organizations either don’t prioritize security or view it as an impediment to meeting product development and delivery deadlines. ... To Ormandy and the dozen or so ace computer crackers that make up Google’s Project Zero, there are no boundaries to their jurisdiction—anything that touches the Internet is fair game. Policing cyberspace isn’t just good for humanity. It’s good for business too.