Google is kicking off I/O as we speak. There probably won’t be any wild surprises—but then again, this is Google, and we could get a little sweet, sweet moonshot action if we’re lucky.
The “moonshot” is a tricky thing. A few years ago, it was Google’s rallying cry. “Moonshots live in the grey area between audacious technology and pure science fiction,” Google said in a 2013 video called Moonshot Thinking. But a lot has changed since then: Google X’s flagship project, Glass, was shuttered earlier this year. Failure is supposed to be a tenet of moonshot thinking, though—maybe more telling was Silicon Valley’s sharp satire of the program, as embodied by Hooli XYZ (Google X) and its Head Dreamer (Google’s Director of Moonshots).
Either way, a lot has changed in the past two years at Google X and the company’s other affiliated research projects. So as we settle in for the keynote this afternoon, let’s take a look at what we know.
In late August of last year, Alexis Madrigal first reported on the existence of Project Wing—Google’s “secret” drone delivery program, which involves developing a vertically-launched autonomous vehicle that can supply everything from emergency aid to, well, things you buy through Google, probably.
During the public introduction of Wing, Google X described it as more of a pie-in-the-sky R&D project than a commercial product tied to a launch. “We also just wanna get out and learn what it’s like to actually deliver,” said founder Nicholas Roy in a video.”It’s years from a product, but it’s the first prototype we want to stand behind.”
Google X’s “Captain of Moonshots”—yes, that’s a real title not made up by the writers on Silicon Valley—hinted that a launch could eventually come to pass, saying “working together we can get to this future surprisingly quickly.” So, exactly how quickly?
Google says the Wing team will spend the next year developing a framework for the program—think navigation systems and safety protocols—that will support drone delivery.
Considering that the regulation of commercial drones is up in the air at the moment, Google could play a major role in demonstrating (not to mention lobbying) to the FAA and the government that autonomous flying vehicles are safe for the public. Even if Wing never becomes a real thing—and there’s a fair chance it won’t—there could be bigger political goals for Google here.
Inside Google X there are scads of teams and projects—one of the most interesting is the Life Sciences Group, headed up by a molecular biologist named Andrew Conrad.
Last year in the Wall Street Journal, Conrad introduced a project called Baseline that sounded deceptively simple: Figure out what the “baseline” (get it?) of human health really is. That means drawing a massive amount of data, from genetic information to diet to molecular structure, from 175 people. “Then Google will use its massive computing power to find patterns, or ‘biomarkers,’ buried in the information,” explained Alistair Barr.
What’s the point of studying average, healthy people so closely? Consider that a lot of what we know about diseases is thanks to people who already have them—and that preventative medicine has the potential to save billions and drastically reduce the incidences of common diseases. By analysing every last building block of life inside its first 175 subjects, Google will help scientists figure out the subtle, less obvious reasons that people get sick. Or don’t.
Right now, Google says it’s testing the Baseline methodology on a smaller group of subjects—in anticipation of the first full study.
Remember when Google bought that hulking, decommissioned, heartbreakingly historic aircraft hangar, Moffett Field, from NASA? The move tantalised anyone who considered what an old hangar could be hiding—and it seems the company has, indeed, used the massive old hangar for a secretive project: Loon.
Loon will use high-altitude balloons to cast internet throughout the world, and it’s been in the offing for two years. In some ways, Loon seems to be at the same place Wing is: The nuts and bolts. In an April update, Google explained its team is focused on “scaling up,” from putting together a launch team to figuring out how to manufacture that many balloons and building a mission control centre to control them.
Test flights continue, too. Last month, Ben Popper reported that Loon had reached a milestone by flying a connection across multiple continents. “Balloons launched in New Zealand flew over 9,000 kilometres (about 5,600 miles) to Latin America and delivered an internet connection, then flew back around the globe for another successful connection test in Australia,” wrote Popper.
If high-altitude internet balloons didn’t seem like enough of a moonshot to you, then boy, has Google got a project for you. Last year, the company bought a two-year-old startup called Titan Aerospace, which is developing lightweight, autonomous drones that, thanks to onboard photovoltaic cells, could theoretically fly for years.
At Mobile World Congress this spring, Google’s Sundar Pichai announced that Titan is making its first test flights sometime this summer. And while the project focuses on bringing internet to places without conventional connectivity, like Loon, Google told me that Titan’s drones may actually end up augmenting the balloons as part of a single system. At the same time, the company was cautious—Titan seems nowhere near the “scaling up” dilemma Loon is facing.
Now we’re getting into the good stuff. Calico is actually a stand-alone company that grew out of Google—now run by Arthur Levinson, who is also the current chairman of Apple. Calico is focused on something very vague and, at the same time, extraordinarily specific: Life extension.
Or, rather, increasing “our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan.” That means bringing together scientists from a broad range of fields to focus on diseases and problems associated with ageing—and how to stop them.
Google wouldn’t say much about progress, except that it is still early days for the fledgling company, but last year, Calico announced a deal with the pharmaceutical company AbbVie that focusing on turning its research into real therapies, as the New York Times explained at the time:
The partnership is a standard biotech deal in which, more or less, one company deals with the early phases of drug development while the other takes responsibility for testing and making whatever gets discovered. You could say that Calico will look for drugs in test tubes and, if they’re successful, AbbVie will test them out and make them in factories.
What else? We may know more by the end of the night.