The biggest moonshot of all may be the skunk works itself: With X, Google has created a laboratory whose mandate is to come up with technologies that sound more like plot contrivances from Star Trek than products that might satisfy the short-term demands of Google's shareholders. "Google X is very consciously looking at things that Google in its right mind wouldn't do," says Richard DeVaul, a "rapid evaluator" at the lab. "They built the rocket pad far away from the widget factory, so if the rocket blows up, it's hopefully not disrupting the core business."
Since its creation in 2010, Google has kept X largely hidden from view. Over the past month, Bloomberg Businessweek spoke to many of X's managers and project leaders, who work with abundant resources and few of the constraints that smothered similar corporate research efforts in the past. "Anything which is a huge problem for humanity we'll sign up for, if we can find a way to fix it," Teller says.
"Anything which is a huge problem for humanity we'll sign up for"Illustration by Rami Neimi"Anything which is a huge problem for humanity we'll sign up for"
Google X seeks to be an heir to the classic research labs, such as the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bomb, and Bletchley Park, where code breakers cracked German ciphers and gave birth to modern cryptography. After the war, the spirit of these efforts was captured in pastoral corporate settings: AT&T's (T) Bell Labs and Xerox (XRX) PARC, for example, became synonymous with breakthroughs (the transistor and the personal computer among them) and the inability of each company to capitalize on them.
That was last century. NASA's budget has been clipped by 11 percent since 1990. Companies are pulling back on basic research as well, preferring to buy disruptive innovation when they see it in startups. "I'm pessimistic," says John Seely Brown, the former director of PARC. "It's shocking how much research is no longer being done. We have no understanding of how fast China is catching up. I think we are a very complacent nation."
Google X Keeps Low Profile at Google I/O
Google X occupies a pair of otherwise ordinary two-story red-brick buildings about a half-mile from Google's main campus. There's a burbling fountain out front and rows of company-issued bikes, which employees use to shuttle to the main campus. Inside one of the buildings, frosted glass covers the conference room windows. A race car tricked out with self-driving technology is parked in the lobby. The car doesn't actually work; it was put there as an April Fools' joke. Some of the hallway whiteboards are filled with diagrams of that multigenerational nerd fantasy: space elevators. Media outlets have speculated that Google X is working on such contraptions, which would involve giant cables that connect the earth to orbiting space platforms. Google X is working on no such project, but employees have embraced the concept. It keeps everyone guessing.
Sitting in the passenger seat of a Google driverless car is a test of faith. The car, a white Lexus RX450h with a $65,000 laser range finder on the roof, is cruising at 55 miles per hour on Silicon Valley's crowded 101 freeway when a giant bus passes—as it happens, a double-decker Google bus, ferrying employees home. As the car weaves to get out of the way, Chris Urmson, the head of the autonomous cars project, is unperturbed. "Google believes in and enables us to do things that wouldn't be possible in academia," says Urmson, a former assistant research professor at Carnegie Mellon, his hands resting comfortably in his lap. Google co-founders Page and Sergey Brin "have this idea that incremental improvements are not good enough. The standard for success is whether we can get these into the world and do audacious things."