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Step inside the incredible world of Google's semi-secret Californian facility

Ash K. Casson

We know it as the world's leading search engine, but in Silicon Valley, California, Google also owns a facility dedicated to making utterly startling technological advancements.

Imagine there was a top-secret laboratory somewhere. A laboratory that housed some of the smartest and most radical minds in technology out there. Now imagine that this laboratory had an almost unlimited amount of funding and resources and that it was able to access information on almost anything or anyone, anywhere in the world at any time. Now imagine a little further; that this laboratory was owned by one of the biggest corporations on the planet; that its parent company was used in some way or another by billions of people all around the world every single day. Imagine that over the past few years it had spent billions of dollars buying some the world's leading companies in the fields of 'neural networking' (computer systems modelled on the human brain and nervous system), advanced robotics and humanoid development, artificial intelligence, home automation, aerospace engineering, robotic vision, and much more. Sounds like a futuristic science fiction movie where the human race eventually gets taken over by machines? Well, it isn't. This is no movie. This is happening right now. SkyNet? No, Google, actually.

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Well, technically, the aforementioned laboratory is actually called Google X (or Google[x] as it prefers to be stylised). And what is Google[x]? It is a 'semi-secret facility run by Google dedicated to making major technological advancements' located half a mile away from Google's impressively vast Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California, and given the type of research that goes on behind the closed doors of this secret lab, "major technological advancements" are fast and furious.

Let's take a closer look at just what is being worked on, based on some of the companies they've purchased so far.

In March 2013, three years after the Google[x] lab was established, it purchased Canadian research and development firm DNNresearch Inc. This company was one of the leading in its field of socalled 'deep neural networking' that is the design and building of computer systems based on the human brain and central nervous system. There is currently (that we know of) no computer in the world that can rival the immense processing power of the human brain. Recently, one of the world's most powerful supercomputers was set the task of trying to process just one full second of average human brain activity. You might think it this would be easily done by such a machine, but you'd be wrong. It took nearly fifty minutes. Fifty minutes to perform just one second. That is how powerful your brain is. Most of the sensational number of calculations your brain performs in a second pass you by subconsciously, without you giving them a second thought, but for a computer to try and replicate these, a substantially longer time period is needed. However, with DNNresearch Inc acquired, Google[x] looks to be setting itself the task of overcoming these shortfalls. It was incorporated into the research facility and what happened with DDNresearch thereafter is currently unknown.

Fast forward to May 2013 and Makani Power was acquired, the worldleader in airborne wind turbines. Yes, that's right, airborne wind turbines. If you've never heard of these, like I hadn't, they're small autonomous tethered wings that fly around in circles up in the sky with small turbines mounted on them. What's the point? With them being up in the air, smaller turbines are adequate due to an increase in wind power, thus making them cheaper to make and operate. The power they generate is passed down via the tether holding them on their circular trajectory and stored for later use. Cheap, effective and renewable energy developed by the best of the best. Yes, Google[x] decided it quite fancied that idea too and folded the company into its own.

During the first week of December 2013, Google[x] acquired nine separate robotics firms including one of the most advanced in the world: Boston Dynamics, the company behind the truly terrifying BigDog (a robot initially designed for the US military and funded by DARPA - look it up on YouTube, you know, that videosharing website owned by, yes, Google); Atlas (a six-foot tall bipedal humanoid with a vast array of search and rescue abilities, again funded by DARPA) and software for 'advanced realistic human simulation'. Again, while there was quite a lot of information available on what Boston Dynamics did prior to its acquisition, information on the continued work of it and the others postacquisition is scarce. Very little more is known of their further developments once cocooned behind the doors of the secret lab.

Next on the acquisition list, in January of this year, was DeepMind Technologies, a leading British artificial intelligence firm founded in only 2011. Even less is known about what it was that DeepMind was working on that attracted the interest of Google[x] but it's safe to say, with such a vast array of companies specialising in artificial intelligence across the globe, there must have been something special about this one. Even the deepmind.com website leaves a mysterious feeling in the back of the mind once you've checked it out, with very little information about what it is, what it does, and what its goals are. The only evidence of its Google ownership is a tiny notice at the bottom of the page advising you Google owns all rights to it. Anything else is mostly guesswork.

So those are some of the companies Google[x] has spent a vast, yet not entirely known sum of money buying. What better way to develop the most advanced technology than to buy the leading specialists in each field and continue their work, often with the scientists and developers that created them continuing their work but for Google[x] rather than independently.

Now let's take a look at a couple of the projects Google has announced that have originated from within the mysterious confides of the Google[x] laboratory.

Project Loon

Named as such due to its seemingly ridiculous goal, Project Loon began life in Google[x] but later moved into the big house at Mountain View and is now run by the less-secretive and better-known Google Inc.

I'll try and sum up what Project Loon is in the simplest way possible: it is a research and development project with the goal of providing high-speed internet access to rural areas of the world by flying highaltitude balloons up into the stratosphere (30 miles above the earth) to create an arial wireless network. Now there's nothing too sinister about that, unless the fact the balloons can also be used to improve communication during situations such as natural disasters and/or wars means anything, but we'll move on.

Google Contact Lens

Unnoticable and unobtrusive, the Google Contact Lens, announced in January of this year, is initially being developed with the goal of monitoring certain aspects of the body, including glucose levels for the benefit of diabetes sufferers, and transmitting wirelessly to a computer. Again, seemingly harmless, for now. History has shown us that with most technology ever created, there are both beneficial and detrimental possibilities for its use, depending on by whom it is applied. This possibility is increased even further when said technology is developed to work on, or within the human body.

Driverless cars

Initially a Google[x] project, this one too has now moved to become controlled by Google directly. What started out as a cool idea is now a reality, with over 300,000 miles on the clock of Google's collective driverless fleet of cars and so far completely accident free. While I like the idea of driverless cars, at the same time the thought of a car with the ability to drive all by itself is somewhat disconcerting. The that idea a machine can 'think' for itself enough to be able to drive, react and act on input is both exciting and scary.

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Other projects currently being worked on by Google[x] that we know of: remember, Google[x]'s lab remains a private and secretive one, and only what it wants to be known by the public will be include; a neural-network that actively learns in the same way a human brain learns (think the computer that took over the world in the movie 'I, Robot'; a space elevator (currently deemed not feasible, but being considered and theorised nonetheless); the use of DNA as a memory storage medium; a hoverboard yes, an actual hoverboard, the kind you were promised all those years ago by Tomorrow's World (costly, but that isn't stopping them from trying) and artificial intelligence built within a humanoid shell that can learn from its surroundings and teach itself new skills.

Calico

One project that was initially thought of within Google[x], but developed into its own stand-alone company by Google before research and development began, is Calico. Calico is now an independant biotech company with the goal of curing aging and significantly extending the average human lifespan via the use of bio and nanotechnologies. It is now being led by Arthur D. Levinson chairman of Apple Inc and Genentech (a huge biotech corporation founded in the seventies by Dr Herbert Boyer, a pioneer in various avenues of DNA research. Before I go and get too biotechnical, let's just say that Calico, founded by Google, with the goal of significantly extending human life and curing the aging process (a truly science-fiction-sounding idea), is now headed by some serious players in the worlds of both technology and biotechnology, rather than being just the pipe dream of a tech firm.

Let's have a recap:

?? In 2010, Google created a topsecret division called Google[x], it began work on a number of projects, most of which remain to this day unknown outside its walls.

?? It spent billions of dollars buying the best of the best in the fields of advanced computer systems based on the human brain and nervous system, superadvanced robotics, artificial intelligence with the ability to learn, adapt and teach, entirely automated systems within cars and robots, advanced global communications via the stratosphere and many more.

?? It spawned separate research and development companies, some of which are now headed by some key players in the world of technology.

?? It continues to buy, absorb and utilise other research and development firms and continue their work.

It all sounds a little Terminator-esque and like I said at the start of this article, a little futuristic and science fiction, yet this is happening right now and it isn't entirely science fiction.

But is this a bad thing?

Sure it can look and sound a little scary depending on which way you look at it. One company with that much power, influence, resource and integration into the lives of billions of people is nothing to be ignored. But at the same time, Google[x]'s own stated goal is to "increase technological advancements exponentially over the next ten years". If I was to sum that statement up, along with everything they're doing, in one word, I'd use 'exciting'. Looking at what Google (not just Google[x]) has already achieved in its relatively short lifetime, it's nothing short of astonishing. This is, in my opinion, the most exciting time in history to be alive. As a species, we've only been here for an incredibly short period of time in comparison to the Earth and we've achieved so much already. As far as technology is concerned, the last hundred years have seen exponential advancements and it shows absolutely no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Companies around the world are making discoveries today that would have seemed ludicrous just ten years ago, and ideas that seem entirely fictional today will be the norm ten years from now especially if Google[x] has anything to say about it.

It all falls down to your perspective. You could say "Just imagine what we'll be able to achieve a hundred years from now". Or you could take a more pessimistic approach and question "Will there even be any need for us, as a species, a hundred years from now?". If you're concerned machines may at some point gain selfawareness and attempt to take over humans in some sort of Terminator-style epic battle, remember; we've got one hell of a headstart on them.

In the mean time, I'll continue to admire the many things Google has produced so far, safe it the knowledge they've not yet taken over as I write this on Google Drive, in Google Chrome, checking it on my Google Android phone tomorrow morning before sending it via Google Mail.

Wait a minute…

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