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Imagine yourself in the near future.
Your breakfast is ready when you wake up. Your hallway light turns on automatically as you walk out of the bedroom. A nimble robot with spindly arms scuttles past as you leave and begins to make your bed. By the time you reach the kitchen, another robot has your food set out on the table and the morning news is cued up on your tablet.
Later, as you enter your car, it shifts into reverse on its own and backs out of the driveway, seamlessly entering traffic with precise acceleration as you relax in the back seat, reviewing the prior week's sales figures for your morning meeting.
Sound like science fiction? This is the world Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) engineers dream of, and thanks to the top-secret work of a few of the company's brightest minds, it might become a reality.
This future is Google X's brainchild; it's a lab so clandestine that it's been compared to the CIA. Google's gathered top minds from the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence, human-computer interactions, electrical engineering, and other high-tech disciplines to work on projects that might once have been the government's top-secret domain. The man behind Google's driverless car is one of the lead researchers, and one of Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) top Kinect developers is also on board. Another major player is an expert at training robots to behave in human ways.
The Internet of things
What's in it for Google? Take the ideas I suggested earlier. Automatic lighting would give Google a greater understanding of its users' schedules. Food that's prepared in advance would tell the company what your preferences are and allow for smarter advertising. A refrigerator that orders food when it runs low could find deals in the area and send them to your Gmail.
That's one aspect of Google X -- the Internet of things. The aim is to move computing beyond things that are obviously computers, making your whole house (or even your whole life) controllable by a few devices -- or making your devices controllable by your whole house.
It's a concept several technology companies have been working on, and which is already deployed in the form of Alcatel-Lucent's (NYSE: ALU ) touchatag, which triggers computerized responses through RFID interaction. Microsoft's presented its shiny Internet-of-things vision in a popular YouTube video, and IBM (NYSE: IBM ) is throwing its weight behind an open-source protocol to manage the billions of potentially connected devices that are sure to come.
The robot-net of robots
The Internet of things makes sense for Google, but what explains its predilection for robots? How much money would a consumer-facing servant-bot fetch? How much of a premium would you pay for an automated car? Autonomous systems from iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT ) have been sweeping floors for years, and the market for more highly functional robots is likely to be limited only by their cost.
If Google wanted to snap up iRobot, it would be a bite-sized acquisition compared with its Motorola Mobility purchase. If the company would rather go solo, the collection of talent at Google X could certainly put forth a compelling robo-assistant -- co-founder Sergey Brin used robotic technology last year to meet and greet at a conference while he sat miles away at a control panel.
Driving is so last century
Robotic cars are nothing new for Google, which has recorded 140,000 miles in its autonomous Priuses. The company's lobbying paved the way for a Nevada law, passed earlier this year, that allows driverless vehicles on the state's roads.
While Ford (NYSE: F ) and Toyota (NYSE: TM ) both have automated parking systems, and Ford has also developed anti-collision alerts, a fully autonomous vehicle would be a massive step forward. It's unlikely that Google itself would enter the auto industry (think of the margins!), but convincing a major automaker to include its systems would be a coup.
A car that drives itself would leave riders free to view location-relevant ads, to Google on their Android tablets, or to suggest a Google Offer for the pizza place they just whizzed past. Any time not spent driving is time that could be spent using Google's services -- and when the average American spends about nine days a year behind the wheel of a car, the reasoning seems obvious.
Let's not forget that Google's automated cars suffered no accidents until a person decided to pilot one.
Don't fear the invention
While analysts and shareholders might fear that Google's pouring its profits down an X-shaped hole in pursuit of unlikely breakthroughs, CEO Larry Page has already tried to calm these worries. Google X is a tiny fraction of the search giant's business. It won't be launching robots to the moon anytime soon.
The existence of Google X shouldn't scare investors as much as entice them. Google's famous 20% time, which gives employees one day a week to work on their own projects, has brought forth Gmail, Google News, Google Reader, Google Maps, AdSense, and other useful ideas now in use across the Google ecosystem. The next stage of Google innovation might be much bigger . . . and much more robotic.
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