What's really behind X, Google's most mysterious company

  • Over nine years ago, a small team within Google branched off into what is now known as Google X.
  • While the lab’s approach is somewhat understood, no one really knows all that much about the company’s new projects and it doesn’t really give comments on request.
  • From Internet-delivery balloons and vertical farms to energy solutions and even venturing into health, here’s what the elusive company has been working on.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Over nine years ago, a small team in Google came up with an extraordinary idea — they wanted to find out whether it was possible for cars to drive without a driver and, if so, how.

Internally, studies of this sort were labeled Google X, the letter “X” serving as a gap-filler for a future name they were waiting to come up with.

Today, the group’s daring experiment has branched off into an entirely independent company. Waymo — formerly known as the Google self-driving car project — is now valued at $250 billion and is considered a leader in the market of self-driven cars.

X, which stuck as the company’s official name, has gone from being a small spin-off to the flagship product of the tech lab, dedicating itself to experimenting in tech across various industries.

The goal, according toThe Atlantic, was for the group to go on and found other companies that would change the world, as well as to become the next Google — although the latter goal was likely with reference to the success of the search giant, namely as the ideas the lab is working on have nothing to do with the business model or Google itself.

“We’ve gotten good at pushing forward things people think are crazy to the point of feasible product prototype,” said laboratory head Astro Teller, describing the laboratory’s ethos in ablog post. X’s team works on hundreds of different ideas, but only a fraction of them come to fruition.

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For the company to take on a project, there are certain criteria that need fulfilling — the project has to affect at least millions of people, the technical solution has to sound like science fiction, it has to be daring, and it also has to be achievable within five to 10 years.

While the strategy of the mysterious lab is more well known, X isn’t actually involved in “concrete” projects. We don’t know that much about possible new projects, and the company doesn’t really give comments on request.

We do, however, know of some industries in which X is currently working and conducting research.

According to a media report, X had already tried vertical farming a few years back, however, the project failed.

According toMIT Technology Review, the lab is now working on improving food production using artificial intelligence, with the aim being to combine this technology with other tech such as drones or robotics, with a view to propelling agricultural development forward.

X had already dabbled in vertical farming a few years ago but the project failed.Chimmunk_1/Flickr

The tech laboratory is also conducting research into robotics within other fields, and several ideas are currently being tested — the robotics team is investigating how robots might learn new information from human demonstrations or rather from other machines sharing information with each other.

The lab is also working on ideas from the field of bioinformatics.

X isn’t conducting research at random, however; while critics have accused the company of burning through a lot of money, the company’s official goal is to make money with its ideas — at some point.

The Loon project is working to introduce Internet to remote locations using balloons.Google

For this reason, last year the lab outsourcedLoon, a project designed to introduce Internet connections to remote locations.

Since 2012, a team has been working on developing balloons that can withstand certain altitudes and fly to specific locations.

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The Wing project — in which a team tested deliveries with drones — also flew the lab’s nest last year. It completed its first flight in 2014, delivering sweets to Australian farmers.

In addition to projects like Wing and Loon, X has also been looking more closely at energy issues in recent years, with three spin-offs in the field: Malta has found a way tostore energy with salt, Dandelion wants to heat houses withgeothermal energy and Makanisends drones into the air to generate energy.

That isn’t all Google X has in store — the company is also looking into medicine: Verily started off under X, however, it’s now somewhat of an independent lab specifically for health tech.

Its teams are working on a wide variety of projects, from intelligent contact lenses to mosquitoes that don’t transmit disease.

Verily also started out under Google X’s lab.Verily

While some ideas actually become spin-offs with Google X’s business model, others are ultimately discontinued.

Yet, failed ideas — including even the failure of advanced products — is part of X’s work culture.

For some time, a team from the lab worked on theFoghorn project, which aimed to produce cheap gasoline from seawater — after a few years, however, the project was discontinued as the chances of success were simply too low.

According to the Atlantic, the entire team received a bonus for taking this decision.

While this may seem to some a strange way of motivating employees, for others it’s a brilliant concept that helps avoid wasting money and time. It’s clearly not just Alphabet Lab’s ideas themselves that are a bit unorthodox; their ethos is somewhat unusual too.

Atlantic journalist Derek Thompson wasn’t wrongin saying: “In this regard, X’s methodical approach to invention, while it might invite sneering from judgmental critics and profit-hungry investors, is one of its most admirable qualities. Its pace and its patience are of another era.”

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