It's no secret that Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) has ambitions far beyond being an Internet search engine or a mobile operating platform.
Its driverless cars and clean energy power plants indicate that it is laying the groundwork for a brave new world that exceeds anything that industry rivals Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Yahoo! (NASDAQ: YHOO), and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) appear to be planning.
Yet there are mind-bending implications for Google's latest projects, which more closely resemble Hollywood's dystopian fantasies than reality. Throughout 2013, Google has developed a self-growing artificial meat, created a new biotech company to slow the aging process, and invested in military robots.
Let's take a look at three amusing ways that Google's new projects are reflecting some of Hollywood's well-known dystopian worlds.
Soylent Green is made of ... stem cells?
In the 1973 film Soylent Green, the dystopian world of 2022 is overpopulated, severely polluted, and devastated by the effects of global warming. Most of the population survives by eating a food ration known as soylent green, which is revealed to be made from processed human flesh.
Although I don't believe that Google intends to grind people into food, the world of Soylent Green looks depressingly familiar today.
The world's population is expected to jump from 7.1 billion today to 9.2 billion by 2050, rising pollution has been implicated in an estimated 2.1 million deaths per year, and global warming caused an iceberg twice the size of Manhattan to break off of Greenland last year. With more people, less hospitable conditions, and less arable land, food prices could double by 2030.
So far, the food industry has turned to two solutions -- genetically modified crops, from controversial companies like Monsanto (NYSE:MON), and factory farms, widely used by protein producer leaders like Tyson Foods (NYSE:TSN). The result is cheaper food at the possible expense of human health.
In response, Google co-founder Sergey Brin invested $344,000 to produce the world's first lab-grown hamburger earlier this year. That investment was enough to allow scientists in London to grow enough meat to create a single edible burger as a proof of concept.
The synthetic beef, consisting of 20,000 muscle fibers, was grown from a cow's stem cells over a period of three months. They were extracted from individual culture wells and pressed together to make a meat patty.
Although this certainly doesn't solve the problem of rising food costs yet, Brin believes that lab-created meat has the potential to eventually replace real meat, protecting animal welfare and reducing the land and water pollution caused by large factory farms.
Vanilla Sky meets The Wolverine
In the 2001 film Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise's character David Aames lives a bizarre, fragmented life that implodes when he realizes that his entire life was a lucid dream as his body lay in cryogenic suspension for 150 years. Meanwhile, the villain of the 2013 film The Wolverine was an aging CEO of a huge tech company, who attempts to cheat death by stealing Wolverine's "immortal" healing powers.
Both of these films appear to be pure fantasy, until they are compared to Google's new biotech subsidiary, Calico (California Life Co.), which was founded in September. When it created Calico, Google hired some of the brightest minds in cancer and age-related diseases, including Arthur Levinson, the former CEO of Genentech (now part of Roche).
Google has stated that its ultimate goal with Calico will be the extension of the average human lifespan by 20 to 100 years, and perhaps even solving death itself. Although those goals seem implausible at first, consider this -- the average human lifespan has already increased by 20 years over the past century.
The formation of Calico has raised some fascinating questions -- will Google eventually create some kind of life-extending super serum for the super rich? Or will it decide to give it away for free as a gift to the world, causing the world's population to skyrocket and cancelling out Sergey Brin's dreams of feeding the world with stem cell burgers?
Or is this all a complex plan, like in The Wolverine, to create life-extending super suits that will allow Larry Page and Sergey Brin to live forever?
Terminator 451: The birth of Skynet
While I'm on that silly tangent of dystopian robots, I should also mention Google's recent purchase of Boston Dynamics, the creator of walking military robots like WildCat/Cheetah and Big Dog.
These animal-like robots can run faster than humans and crawl up terrain that is otherwise inaccessible to regular vehicles and military robots. In addition, Boston Dynamics has also produced a half-humanoid military robot known as Petman and a fully humanoid one called Atlas.
These robots remind me of Ray Bradbury's 1953 dystopian classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, in which the protagonist, Guy Montag, is pursued through the streets by a giant robotic hound. More importantly, there are also obvious parallels with the dystopian Terminator franchise, in which the rogue AI known as Skynet mobilizes all military robots to wipe out humanity.
Although the acquisition doesn't make Google a military contractor, Boston Dynamics will still honor its current military contracts with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which makes Google responsible for fulfilling the military's orders.
Imagine the enhancements that Boston Dynamics' robots could receive with Google's technologies -- location-based searches, instant access to cloud-based data, voice recognition, and even facial recognition -- and it's hard not to see a cyborg army replacing human soldiers, police officers, and guards in the near future.
A final thought
While I seriously doubt that Larry Page and Sergey Brin will ever don life-extending super suits and command a robotic army of cheetahs and androids -- the advances that Google is making are extremely impressive.
Yahoo! is worrying about how to monetize mobile ads. Facebook is worried about retaining fickle teen users. Microsoft is trying to stay relevant as its core products, Windows and Office, continue aging poorly.
Meanwhile, Google has taken over the world of search, with 71% and 91% shares of the global desktop and mobile markets, respectively. However, that's just a starting point -- Google is planning decades ahead, unlike most of its industry peers, which are merely trying to please their shareholders a quarter at a time.