BEST OF THE WEB: A sneak peek inside Google’s top secret “X” division

Google is well-known for producing some crazy projects, including driverless cars and the more mainstream and controversial product, Google Glass.

While everyday consumers might know Google comes up with some crazy projects, they may not know where these projects are born: inside a top-secret lab where only the most privileged employees have access.

Google X is the name given to this division, which experiments with unusual and seemingly unviable ideas. This is where Google Glass was born, along with the self-driving car.

And in this new piece over at BusinessWeek, the publication gives a sneak peek into how the lab runs.

As the publication explains, Google X is designed purely to come up with projects that don’t necessarily present any commercial benefit.

“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.”

The division itself is housed in a couple of buildings near the Google main campus in San Francisco. The lab started in 2005, when now chief executive and co-founder Larry Page met Stanford computer scientist Sebastian Thrun at the Darpa Grand Challenge.

The two men shared a belief in the promise of artificial intelligence and robotics and became friends. Two years later, Page convinced Thrun and several of his students to help with its Street View mapping project.

Thrun started work on the self-driving car project, which has exceeded the company’s expectations. But from that project, Google X has grown into a fully-fledged experimental division, which has kept Thrun inside the Google infrastructure. That project, Google X has grown into a fully-fledged experimental division, which has kept Thrun inside the Google infrastructure.

Astro Teller from Google X describes the division as “Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory”. And he’s certainly pursuing strange ideas – like teleportation.

When he’s not evangelizing for Google X, Teller spends much of his time surveying new ideas for the lab. Absurdity is not a barrier to consideration. Teller and colleagues say they’ve spent time contemplating levitation and teleportation.

The latter was nixed as an area for further study in part because any unique item that you would want to teleport—a Picasso, say—would have to be completely destroyed before it could be reconstituted on the other end.

Google has been moving its X division into the mainstream with Google Glass. This is an excellent look at what kind of experiments we could expect to see in the future.

The privacy challenges of wearable computing

The release of Google Glass and the rumours of an Apple watch have sent talk of wearable computing devices into the mainstream. But this has also brought with it a discussion about privacy and the implications of these devices.

As this New York Times piece explains, the implications are extraordinary – while wearing Google Glass, another person will be staring into a camera during a conversation the entire time.

Society eventually adapted to these cameras, but not without some struggle, a few broken cameras and lots of court battles. Today we live in a world with more than a billion smartphones with built-in cameras. But, there is a difference between a cellphone and a wearable computer; the former goes in your pocket or purse, the latter hangs on your body.

Wearable computing is still a long way off from going mainstream, but this is a good analysis of the inevitable implications of the technology.

The modern art of watchmaking

Watchmaking.

It sounds like such a simple art. But according to this new piece over at Wired, it is anything but.

As it turns out, watchmaking has become incredibly complicated, with makers using new tools and modern materials. A summary of the complicated nature of modern watchmaking is dizzyingly complex:

“Like any mechanical system, wristwatches suffer from friction. Running at high speed, a watch will swiftly break down, and even before the mechanism self-destructs, the friction will waste vast amounts of energy.”

“Since a chronograph, or stopwatch, is used only intermittently—seldom running for more than a few minutes at a time—you can get away with running a piston engine at jet-engine speeds. But what if you want to enlist high-frequency, quartz-like precision for 24-hour-a-day timekeeping? Simply eliminate mechanical contact—by replacing the gearwork with magnetism.”

Hardly anyone uses watches for practical purposes any more. But the art of watchmaking is still very much alive.

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