“Google is already overflowing with incredibly creative bright groups already working on lots of the software problems of the world,” Teller told hundreds of tech nerds at the O’Reilly Solid Conference in San Francisco, a conference dedicate to the merging of software and hardware. “If we want to help Google become something meaningfully different in the future, then that’s more likely to happen if we focus on the physical world instead.”
But as Teller sees it, Google won’t be as relevant unless it looks to solve problems that mere web services can’t. Clean water won’t happen purely through a new piece of software, he said. Nor will the new ways of storing energy needed to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. “If software’s the only thing in your bag of tools, I’m not going to give you great odds,” he said.
Filling the Void
Most businesses, Teller said, are feeling more pressure than ever to become software-focused. Solve a problem in software, and you can scale that solution up at no cost. Ka-ching. The physical world doesn’t work that way, which makes many companies wary of trying to find new ways to shuffle atoms as well as bits. But this means there’s even more opportunity for a company like Google, which is willing to go physical. “That bias tends to drag us into explorations where people have done less exploration,” he said.
At the same time, software can help in the physical world. In the realm of actual stuff, progress is still bogged down by what he called a 20th-century “civil engineering mentality.” Cars may be connected to the internet these days, but the thinking behind the vehicles themselves is still driven by the idea that designing and building a car is mainly a mechanical problem. In the future, Teller said, improving the strength, safety, and durability of cars will be driven not by better mechanics but by embedding digital intelligence into the system. Software and hardware are equal parts of the answer, he said. Take either one away, and you’ve cut your chance of solving the problem you’re facing in half.
Among the many projects overseen by Teller as head of Google X was the launch of massive helium-filled balloons over New Zealand to make internet access available over a wide swath of backcountry otherwise off the grid. Making the balloons work, he said, means making them smart. Google could never launch a balloon that would simply hang over San Francisco. The winds are too strong compared with the energy needed to keep the balloon in one place. Instead, Google has made the balloons weather-aware. Each one knows to move up or down to catch a particular current. When a group of balloons moves in a coordinated way, it creates a flocking effect that becomes the equivalent of always having a balloon where it’s needed.
Teller sees that kind of embedded intelligence not just as the future for Google but for the world. Moving technology forward means building things for a universe beyond screens and putting them out into that world to see if they really work. “Find some fun way to get a little more oil on your hands or mud on your boots,” Teller likes to tell his Google X team, even if the goal isn’t exactly clear. “Sometimes, that’s what it takes to take down some of the really big problems.”
Source: Marcus Wohlsen