Is Google’s Top-Secret, Futuristic Lab a Waste of Money?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 14 2011 4:16 PM

Is Google’s Top-Secret, Futuristic Lab a Waste of Money?

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Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Photo by KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/Getty Images

In the New York Times today, Claire Cain Miller and Nick Bilton examine Google X, the search giant’s super-secretive lab to explore far-out technologies like autonomous cars, Web-connected refrigerators, and space elevators. If any existent company can create the future, it would seem safe to bet on Google.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

But as Miller and Bilton tell it, some of Google’s investors are not thrilled with this DARPA-esque corner.

Because Google X is a breeding ground for big bets that could turn into colossal failures or Google’s next big business—and it could take years to figure out which—just the idea of these experiments terrifies some shareholders and analysts.
“These moon-shot projects are a very Google-y thing for them to do,” said Colin W. Gillis, an analyst at BGC Partners. “People don’t love it but they tolerate it because their core search business is firing away.”
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It’s puzzling that shareholders are merely “tolerating” Google X’s far-out projects, rather than pressing the company to invest even more. Larry Page even tried to soothe investors’ fears by describing Google X over the summer as the investment “a few small, speculative projects happening at any one time.” He added, “[W]e are very careful stewards of shareholders’ money. … We are not betting the farm on these.”

Most of Google X’s approximately 100 initiatives will likely fail; that’s the nature of “moon-shot projects.” But if even one of these “speculative” projects bears fruit, it will help Google fight the middle-aged image that the New York Times has also ascribed to the company of late. Given that Google X isn't receiving enormous amounts of money, shareholders should celebrate Google’s attempts to create the future, not fear them.

Read more on the New York Times.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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