Itâ€™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 youâ€™re eating. Your robot could go to the office while you stay home in your pajamas. 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.
â€œTheyâ€™re pretty far out in front right now,â€ said Rodney Brooks, a professor emeritus at M.I.T.â€™s computer science and artificial intelligence lab and founder of Heartland Robotics. â€œBut Googleâ€™s not an ordinary company, so almost nothing applies.â€
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 ground-breaking 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 Googleâ€™s DNA. â€œWhile 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,â€ she said.Â
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 companyâ€™s main Web search business.
For example, space elevators, a longtime fantasy of Googleâ€™s founders and other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, could collect information or haul things into space. (In theory, they involve rocketless space travel along a cable anchored to Earth.) â€œGoogle is collecting the worldâ€™s data, so now it could be collecting the solar systemâ€™s data,â€ Mr. Brooks said.
Sergey Brin, Googleâ€™s co-founder, is deeply involved in the lab, said several people with knowledge of it, and came up with the list of ideas along with Larry Page, Googleâ€™s other founder, who worked on Google X before becoming chief executive in April; Eric E. Schmidt, its chairman; and other top executives. â€œWhere I spend my time is farther afield projects, which we hope will graduate to important key businesses in the future,â€ Mr. Brin said recently, though he did not mention Google X.
Google may turn one of the ideas â€” the driverless cars that it unleashed on Californiaâ€™s roads last year â€” into a new business. Unimpressed by the innovative spirit of Detroit automakers, Google now is considering manufacturing them in the United States, said a person briefed on the effort.
Google could sell navigation or information technology for the cars, and theoretically could show location-based ads to passengers as they zoom by local businesses while playing Angry Birds in the driverâ€™s seat.
Robots figure prominently in many of the ideas. They have long captured the imagination of Google engineers, including Mr. Brin, who has already attended a conference through robot instead of in the flesh.
Fleets of robots could assist Google with collecting information, replacing the humans that photograph streets for Google Maps, say people with knowledge of Google X. Robots born in the lab could be destined for homes and offices, where they could assist with mundane tasks or allow people to work remotely, they say.