Google X Labs is the Google version of Area 51: a futuristic and top-secret ‘blue sky’ research facility. Instead of lurking in the desolate alien wastes somewhere near Rachel, Nevada, Google’s own Dreamland is in the Bay Area. Instead of performing alien autopsies, Google researchers are developing Android armies of autonomous destruction…or something.
Let’s see what we know, what we suspect, and what we can only foolishly speculate about what these geniuses may be doing in their secret hideout.
- “Cars that can drive themselves,” stated the Official Google Blog. “Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles.” Google’s robot cars are not the future; they’re the past (or, at least, the present). Stanford’s Dr. Sebastian Thrun has been optimizing his 2005 Pentagon Prize-winning autonomous vehicle designs for Google, with many advantages over human drivers, including safety, efficiency, and even parking space freedom (because they’ll come when you call them).
- Android@home. For the most part, universal remotes are great. The only problems are that they’re never around when you need them and they never really control everything. Google knows this is a problem and decided that since your smartphone is already your constant companion, how about making sure it can talk to every appliance? Sure, turning the blender on and off with your Galaxy Nexus may be funny once or twice, but think about being able to adjust the heat without getting up to go to the thermostat or making absolutely certain that you turned off the curling iron when you left home this morning?
- Elevator to Space. We know for a fact that Google X Labs is developing a space elevator. We can also guess that it will be made of carbon nanotubes, the only substance strong and light enough for the 22,000 mile stretch from the surface of the Earth to a space station in geostationary orbit. And if you’re wondering why, the answer is really very simple: for one thing, space flight is (un-scientifically speaking) about a zillion times easier and cheaper when you no longer have to worry about getting out of Earth’s gravity first.
- Robot Commuters. Details of this one are sketchy, but the coverage of Google X Labs has repeatedly mentioned the concept of robot workers who would go into the office for you. I’m reserving judgment until I hear more details, knowing that if a robot can do my job, it seems far more likely that we’ll simply be expected to do twice the work or be replaced entirely.
- Refrigerator Shoppers. Far more realistic are the reports of things like ‘smart’ refrigerators that know exactly what’s inside them, and can order more food when they’re getting low. Yes, I said “realistic.” This is part of the near-future Internet of Things (or “Web of Things,” as Google calls the idea), in which everything has a unique IP address, RFID tag, or something else which identifies it on the vast virtual inventory of the internet. If your milk bottle was able to transmit when it was getting low, it would be a fairly simple matter for your refrigerator to process the data and pass it on to the local grocery store’s server. Sync this process with a recipe database and a meal schedule (and your bank account), and you’d never have to write a grocery list again.
- Light Bulb Data. One of the ideas behind the Internet of Things is to get away from constantly acquiring more stuff in order to do more stuff and, instead, make the stuff that we already have actually do more stuff (still following?). One fascinating proposal comes from Harald Haas, professor of engineering at Edinburgh University: D-Light, data transmission using an LED bulb. You and I would see a normal light bulb, but our Internet-enabled devices would see, well, the Internet. Already, Dr. Haas has his bulbs connecting faster than most people’s ISPs (up to 10 MBit/s). It’s basically fiberless optics, and it also nicely eliminates any worries about electromagnetic radiation. He also says that “it should be so cheap that it’s everywhere,” which means you’ll be able to turn off your oven over the Internet via streetlights, while your robot car is driving you to the space elevator, instead of work.