To Understand Google, Remember Its Ultimate Dream

A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 27 2014 9:27 AM

Remembering Google's Dream

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A Nest Thermostat and a smoke/carbon monoxide detector are seen on Jan. 16, 2014, in Provo, Utah.

Photo illustration by George Frey/Getty Images

Horace Dediu wrote a great piece the other day about Google's ambiguous relationship to its own business model, wherein what's in a sense the world's greatest advertising agency instead presents itself as a kind of pure engineering company. There's a bit of a contrast here between Google and most other high-profile firms that tend to do a better job of articulating themselves clearly in public. But this piece Farhad Manjoo did last April about Google's obsession with the fictional computers depicted in Star Trek is one of those things that I liked at the time but whose true importance has only become clear to me through subsequent revisiting of the subject.

But even though it sounds a little silly, it's worth stopping to take it seriously. You have on the television shows a very thoroughly depicted vision of human-computer interaction. With absolutely nothing said about how the technology works. Google's mission is to figure that out. How do you build the Star Trek computer?

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If you think about it that way, then suddenly some recent Google moves look very clear. Of course you would invest money in mysterious AI startups if you wanted to build the Star Trek computer. But also think about Nest. If you think about Google in terms of Google's core business—advertising—this looks a bit weird. Sure, they can maybe use Nest data to help target ads at you. But how effective is this really? They'll figure out it's cold in your house and email you ads for sweaters? The local weather is already publicly available.

But if you think about Google in terms of Google's core aspiration, it's obvious. The Star Trek computer controls the life support systems on the ship. We've seen it many times. It monitors conditions internally, automatically adjusts them to keep the ship livable, and can also change things up on the captain's orders. To be the Star Trek computer you have to be in the "home automation" market. But the vast majority of home automation products out on the market today are janky and weird. Nest's aren't. They work well. They have a good team behind them. And the step from the Nest Thermostat and the Nest Protect to a comprehensive home life support system is very easy to see. It's a perfect acquisition.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.