Monday, September 22, 2014

Death, drones and driverless cars: how Google wants to control our lives

Google seems to be reaching out of the internet and into every corner of the world. So what exactly does it want – and can it really be good for us?

If you want to understand the future of humanity – where we’re headed, who’ll be in charge, and exactly how worried you should be about that – you could do worse than begin with two unremarkable buildings, on opposite coasts of the US. The more famous one, half a mile from Google’s main campus in Mountain View, California, is home to Google X, the search giant’s purportedly secret research lab. It’s not really very secret. From breathless reports in the technology press, we know it’s where Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, oversees the development of self-driving cars; tiny drones that can deliver packages by hovering high above the ground and winching them down on fishing line; helium balloons to beam 3G internet access to remote parts of the world;unmanned flying turbines to collect wind energy at high altitudes; andGoogle Glass, the head-mounted, web-connected, video-enabled computer perfect for alienating friends and strangers alike.
The other building, at 25 Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC, gets less attention. Since July, it has been home to Google’s expanding political lobbying activities: a staff of 110 now works there under Susan Molinari, a former Republican congresswoman for New York. Ten years ago – the year it went public – Google spent a mere $180,000 on lobbying; as of this August, according to the Wall Street Journal, it had spent $9.3m in 2014 alone, making it the second-biggest spender among private companies, ahead of defence contractors such as Lockheed Martin and outdone only by Dow Chemical. Facebook and Microsoft both spent significantly less.
Washington politicians are well accustomed to being treated to steak dinners by lobbyists (and receiving campaign contributions from those they represent: Google gave $1.1m to national US political candidates in the first half of this year). But Google’s lobbying reaches much further. If you are, say, an Illinois lawmaker pondering a bill to stop people wearing Glass while they’re driving, you may find Google lobbyists reaching out for discussion; if you’re in a position to influence legislation on driverless cars, you may find yourself being taken for a spin in one. There are Google policy teams in Brussels; in Berlin, site of many battles with the German government over privacy; and in many other cities, including London, where the team is headed by Sarah Hunter, a former senior adviser to Tony Blair.
This level of political activity is unusual for a technology company. What, in the broadest sense, is Google up to? Even more broadly: what is Google, these days? Looked at one way, it’s just a massively successful advertising company: 90% of its revenue, or about $52bn in 2013, comes from ads like the ones that pop up when you search. No wonder, a cynic might say, that Google wants people to be permitted to wear Glass while they drive; it wants people never to leave the internet at all. But then there are the self-driving cars and the drones; there’s Baseline Study, a project to collect blood, saliva and urine from hundreds of anonymous volunteers to try to predict the likelihood of heart attacks and other life-threatening conditions; and Calico, a biotech subsidiary that aims – in the words of Time magazine, anyway – to “solve death”.
Among the more than 160 companies that Google has acquired since 2001 – recently at an average of more than one a week – are makers of robot arms and robot wheels, thermostats and smoke detectors; a satellite imaging company that has launched two private satellites from Russia and Kazakhstan; and Zagat, the restaurant review business. Are these all just the hobbies of astonishingly rich men who’d like to find a way not to die (and a good place for dinner)? Or is there a masterplan? What does Google want?
You have to read between the lines of How Google Works, a new book by the company’s executive director Eric Schmidt, and its head of product, Jonathan Rosenberg, to catch a hint of an answer to questions like that... read more: