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…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 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.”
Last year, Brin, Google’s director of special projects, predicted his company’s self-driving cars will be on the market in five years. Urmson nervously calls that deadline “exciting” and reveals his own target. “I have a 9-year-old son who gets his driver’s license in seven years,” he says. “So I have to be better than that.”
If it weren’t for the robo-cars, there might be no such thing as Google X. The lab’s origins reach back to 2005, when Page first met the Stanford computer scientist Sebastian Thrun at the Darpa Grand Challenge, where Thrun’s team of graduate students was competing to send an autonomous vehicle through a 7-mile obstacle course in the Mojave Desert. 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 had grown disenchanted with the pace of academia, where professors are motivated to publish papers rather than build products. He started the self-driving car project at Google in early 2009. Page and Brin gave him a target: Build one that could flawlessly drive 1,000 miles of open California highways and serpentine city streets. Thrun and his team of a dozen engineers met that goal in 15 months. Their car successfully navigated the jammed streets of Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, and the lower span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, where the car had no GPS reception.
As progress exceeded their expectations, Thrun, Brin, and Page began to talk about expanding the project into a full-fledged research lab. For Page and Brin, it was a way to indulge their longtime interest in technologies beyond search—which generated $44 billion in revenue last year—while keeping the perennially restless Thrun in the fold. “The Google founders were deeply impressed with Sebastian’s ability to be a great scientist who also gets stuff done,” says Teller, a contemporary of Thrun’s at Carnegie Mellon, who joined Google X from a hedge fund, Cerebellum Capital. “Google X was to some extent created as a home for self-driving cars, and literally it was an enticement for Sebastian to stay.”
Thrun always thought of corporate labs as playgrounds for lifetime employees who were overly absorbed by the abstractions of pure research. He wanted to focus on research that was at least commercially plausible and let talent come and go as projects evolved. Thrun says he seriously considered calling the new group the Google Research Institute, but that carried exactly the kind of sleepy connotations he was trying to avoid. Google X, he says, was a placeholder, a variable to be filled in later…