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Thursday, April 3, 2014
Creating the future, changing the world -- Part II

As head of X, Teller is known as Google's "captain of moonshots" — a reference to ambitious projects that promise to have a big impact. Driverless cars were the first big project at X. Page and Brin created the division in 2010 as a lab for computer scientist Sebastian Thrun, who led the development of the vehicle. (The unit's official name is (x), with brackets, because it was originally a placeholder to be filled in later.) Thrun left in 2012, but Page and Brin decided X should explore other ideas that caught their interest, like wearable computers.

They recruited an electrical engineering professor, Babak Parviz, who had published research on using lenses to display images. Soon they brought on more engineers, software developers and designers to build what came to be called Google Glass, which is expected to be released this year.

Other X projects are no less ambitious. There's the airborne Makani wind turbine — a pair of turbines on a 6.7-meter wing designed to fly in circles so that it can generate electricity and send it by cable to the ground.

Another aerial endeavor is Project Loon, which is exploring whether a network of low-cost balloons carrying radio gear can deliver Internet services to developing countries. "We have the license to go and try stuff that really might not work, but if it does, it can change the world in big ways," Richard DeVaul, the project's chief technical architect, said.

The division is working on more "moonshot" ideas, but they're not ready to be disclosed, Teller said. He declined to reveal X's budget or the size of its staff. Google spent US$8 billion (approximately NT$242 billion) on research and development companywide last year. Teller said X projects are evaluated based on their potential for big impact, rather than immediate profit. But there may be other benefits, said Paul Saffo, a veteran technology forecaster.

Google's image gets a boost when people see the company working on high-tech solutions to human problems, Saffo said. And projects like self-driving cars can provide new data about users and their surroundings, which may benefit Google's information-driven business.

Analyst Colin Gillis of BGC Partners said Google just needs one or two "hits" for its "moonshot" strategy to pay off. And as the Internet industry evolves, he said, "they're going to need new sources of revenue." X hasn't produced a clear financial hit yet, Gillis said. But that hasn't fazed Page and Brin. "They're going to do these projects," Gillis said. "That's one thing they have made pretty clear."

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