To Understand Google, Remember Its Ultimate Dream

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

Remembering Google's Dream

462992765-in-this-photo-illustration-a-nest-thermostat-and-a
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?

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Uh-Oh. The World’s Oceans Have Broken Their All-Time Heat Record.

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

How to Keep Apple From Sharing Your iPhone Data With the Police

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

A Simple Way to Keep Apple From Sharing Your iPhone Data With the Police

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
Outward
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.