Under Sergey Brin, Google’s X Division Still Shoots for the Moon

Sergey Brin, Google, Code Conference

Asa Mathat

Sergey Brin


Liveblog highlights:

  • Brin says Snowden’s NSA revelations were a “huge disappointment.
  • The secretive Google X wing of the company that Brin leads is working on multiple efforts, including Project Loon and Project Glass.
  • Project Glass, the wearable head computing technology, is best used outside, Brin says.
  • Google’s latest self-driving car iteration was built from the ground up by Google. This is what it’s like to ride in it.
  • Brin expects that Google will be testing its new self-driving car before the end of the year.
  • Brin’s Google X division steers clear of most projects that the rest of the company deals with regularly.
  • When working on Google Glass, Brin said, the company explicitly asks third-party developers to not incorporate facial recognition into their applications.

Google controls more than a 67 percent market share in search in the U.S. and much more than that in other global regions. It generated more than $61 billion in revenue over the past year and is now one of the five most valuable public companies in the world. It’s well positioned for the next big wave, accounting for some 47 percent of global Internet ad revenue on mobile.

In other words, it is in peak form. And it has never been more insecure. The company is going through a midlife crisis. To battle the effects of aging, it has turned to nurturing “moonshots” — long-term projects that take on physical rather than virtual challenges and are plucked straight from the realms of science fiction. Many of these projects won’t turn into viable businesses for years. But any one of these could change the face of fill-in-the-blank industry. This is Sergey Brin’s domain. His role as one of the leaders of Google X makes him the ringleader of self-driving cars, high-flying balloons that deliver Internet access, computers worn on your face and many other mysteries of engineering and science.

In an interview with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg at the inaugural Code Conference, Brin sidestepped talk of business. He hasn’t paid much attention to the smartphone patent court battles with Samsung. And he has even less interest in running a big company — or even a big team.

But Brin waxed philosophic about the search giant’s latest and greatest futuristic projects, including a big extension of the self-driving car program. Brin unveiled Google’s first car built from scratch, a gondola on wheels with no steering wheel and no brake pedals.

Brin also discussed his impatience with the pace of innovation and his disappointment with the NSA surveillance revelations and joked about new projects (or not) around invisibility cloaks, fembots and thousands of hovering satellites.

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:37 pm

Sergey Brin takes the stage wearing a Google Glass around his neck and Crocs on his feet.

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:39 pm

Brin appeared at an AllThingsD conference about a decade ago talking about the value of search and a green laser pointer he’d bought, Walt Mossberg recalls. Brin says he remembers the laser pointer; it was such a high-powered laser that he had to buy it from outside the U.S. But the real question: How has Google changed since then? “It’s a much larger company. In a lot of ways, it’s less fun. But the roots of what we do are similar.” 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:39 pm

Working at a larger company is hard for Sergey: “It’s very upsetting, I’m not sure I can accept this right now,” he says. 

John Paczkowski May 27, 20146:40 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:41 pm

Big Google means scary Google, Kara Swisher observes. “In the external view, Google is Goliath. In the internal view, we’re David,” says Brin.

John Paczkowski May 27, 20146:41 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:43 pm

Walt Mossberg observes that Brin had strong convictions about doing business in China due to the government censorship there. Does he have parallel feelings about U.S. government surveillance? “The Snowden revelations were a huge disappointment,” he says. 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:44 pm

“From my perspective if you go back to the Cold War, when the NSA was presumably spying on a small number of people, and was protecting us from total nuclear annihilation, that’s one kind of balance. In the most recent decade, if you look at counter-terrorism as the target, and you have to surveil everybody, I think the balance looks really different. It came as a shock.”

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:45 pm

As for the details, Brin says, “From a technological point of view, when you make something secure, you make it secure. By the time the snooping on the backbone slides came out, we had already been encrypting a majority of our traffic on the backbone.” 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:46 pm

“We have a group that’s hundreds, approaching a thousand people, working on Internet security.” The U.S. policies are “hypocritical,” Brin says, and they should be revisited. 

John Paczkowski May 27, 20146:46 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:47 pm

Okay, but Google knows everything about you, right? What are the ethical implications of that? “There is a lot of data you just have to have [in order to provide our services],” Brin says. “We are always elevating and making them more secure to stop the potential for abuse.” 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:48 pm

The difference is, Google is a consumer-facing brand. “We wouldn’t survive if people don’t trust us,” he says.

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:49 pm

Brin: “I’m sure we’ve made our share of mistakes. I’m not claiming we do a perfect job. The StreetView Wi-Fi, that was in error. But if you were to come in and go to our meetings, we have people who care very deeply about privacy.”

John Paczkowski May 27, 20146:49 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:50 pm

Swisher: What is your definition of privacy? “Privacy is the expectation that certain personal things stay secret.” Mossberg: So is that possible right now? “Sure.”

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:52 pm

Mossberg asks Brin why he’s not CEO of Google. Brin jokes around saying he wasn’t aware he wasn’t CEO, but adds, “There’s a whole bunch of things I’m glad Larry is taking on, and not me.” 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:53 pm

Brin’s been working on Google X for the past three years, he says, which has eight projects. That includes Project Loon, Project Glass.

John Paczkowski May 27, 20146:54 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:55 pm

He dismisses backlash against Google Glass, saying he uses it when he’s outdoors, while biking, and with his kids. He was wading in the ocean taking pictures of his kids the other day, which would have been hard to do with his phone. 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:55 pm

“We’re still in the explorer phase, we’re still learning. Fundamentally what I’ve learned for myself is they get the most value when they are used in context with eyewear.”

John Paczkowski May 27, 20146:55 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:56 pm

Brin goofs off, taking photos and videos of Kara and Walt. Walt asks if Brin’s Glass has pulled up his credit history on-screen yet. 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:57 pm

Oh boy, now he’s making jokes about leaving the Glass off in his hotel room later tonight. 

John Paczkowski May 27, 20146:57 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:58 pm

“The fact is, I’m much more present with my kids. I’m not fumbling around, I’m able to be there and go on with my life. It’s very much about getting the benefits of technology but without crowding your world with more management. The phone has come a really long way but there’s a barrier to taking it out.”

John Paczkowski May 27, 20146:59 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20146:59 pm

So when is Google going to sell Glass to the public? “I’d hope we could by the end of the year, but I’m not sure.”

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:00 pm

Google’s now unveiling the self-driving car it built from scratch. They pre-briefed us on this so they’re showing a video of me and Kara in the cute little car zooming around a parking lot near Google.

John Paczkowski May 27, 20147:01 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:01 pm

“It’s still at the prototype stage,” Brin warns. He notes it doesn’t have a steering wheel or pedals. 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:03 pm

“The project is about changing the world for people who are not well-served by transportation today.”

John Paczkowski May 27, 20147:03 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:05 pm

“The main reason the team and I decided to build this prototype vehicle is that we can do a better job that we can do with an existing vehicle.”

John Paczkowski May 27, 20147:06 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:06 pm

“About 10 seconds after getting in, I was doing my email. It was like getting in a chairlift.” 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:08 pm

“The big win is really in safety. It has to do with where we put all the sensors. These prototypes have redundant power steering motors. And the brakes are also redundant. These vehicles are limited to 25 miles per hour, which is another level of safety. Nothing can be perfect, there’s laws of physics, if somebody appears in front of you, you can’t stop in time. There’s two feet of foam on front, and the windshield is made of plastic that gives. It should be far safer than any other car for pedestrians.”

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:09 pm

The car is built with standard car parts from auto manufacturing firms, and Google wants to make 100 to 200 prototypes. 

John Paczkowski May 27, 20147:09 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:10 pm

“There’s also a huge tax on the community by having all these individually owned and operated cars. Cars aren’t used 96 percent of the time, and there’s three times as many parking spaces as cars. During peak driving, 30 percent of driving in a city is people looking for parking. That goes away if you have cars that drive themselves and drop you off and go find another passenger.”

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:10 pm

Also, it’s an electric car.

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:11 pm

Walt asks what about people who love to drive. “I’m certainly not advocating that we get rid of all cars that do not drive themselves. I think there’s a mix, some people do want to do that, some people don’t,” Brin responds.

John Paczkowski May 27, 20147:11 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:13 pm

Are you going to be a car company? Do you want to sell cars? “We’ve worked with partners to build these prototypes and we expect to work with partners in the future. The Nexuses are a great example, built by Samsung and LG.”

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:15 pm

“I think being broadly available is a long way away,” Brin says. He previously said five years until self-driving cars would be widely on the road; he still hopes that true. As for the new cars, later this year Google wants people to test them with joysticks. When the cars are significantly safer than a human driver, they’ll be tested on a small basis in some cities in a few years. 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:16 pm

Swisher: Will you need a reservation system for these? Are you going to make use of your huge investment in Uber? Brin: “We’ll sort it out when it’s closer to being widely deployed. Longer term, it’s not clear. We are most certainly going to partner with other companies, possibly Uber.”

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:17 pm

What’s next for Google X? An invisibility cloak? Oh, we’ve already developed the invisibility cloak, Brin says, gesturing to the air next to him. “That’s why I have the PR person here whispering answers to me.”

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:19 pm

Swisher and Mossberg: Why is Google doing this? Is it just to satisfy your curiosity or is it actually a product development thing? “I think it’s a little bit of both,” Brin says. “I think it’s important for companies in general to try to do new things. That’s how new things happen.”

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:21 pm

Mossberg: What about core Google? Is it also innovating? “There were a lot of search engines before Google. But there were some things that were unique and we did better.” Same with Android. Yes, the core of Google is still interesting … Brin trails off. Is there overlap with Google X? “None of the things we work on in other groups at Google would pursue or do something similar. It’s not my favorite thing to do, to manage complicated entanglements between different parts of the company.” 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:22 pm

What does Sergey do? What’s his relationship with Larry Page? Brin responds that, other than Google X, he recently spent a fair amount of time on security stuff. He says he sees Page often, but he’s generally off at the Google X buildings which are at the edge of campus. 

John Paczkowski May 27, 20147:23 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:24 pm

Mossberg asks about patents and Google X, and Brin says it’s different for physical products than software. But if he could remake patents, he would get rid of business process patents and shorten the terms because technology cycles are much quicker than patents last. “I would also require the patent holder to be using and practicing the patent.” 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:25 pm

As an aside, Brin says, “We are not reinventing the wheel, by the way, at Google X. We have proper wheels from automotive suppliers.”

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:25 pm

“I think whatever patent regime you have, society has to be better off than if that person had never thought of the idea.”

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:27 pm

On competition: “From a Google X point of view, I feel if there are notable competitors, it’s probably not a project we ought to be doing.”

John Paczkowski May 27, 20147:29 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:30 pm

Brin addresses some other Google products, praising Gmail. On Google+: “I think I’m probably the worst person to speak about social. I’m not very social myself. … I’m kind of a weirdo. It was probably a mistake for me to be doing anything tangential to social to begin with.”

John Paczkowski May 27, 20147:30 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:32 pm

Are you happy, will you stay doing this for a long time? “I’ve been much happier with my job since I made the transition to Google X. … I like to be closer to the iron.”

John Paczkowski May 27, 20147:33 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:34 pm

Audience question time. Will Google do satellites next? “We already have a fleet of a million satellites,” Brin jokes. “There are no Google X projects related to satellites.” 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:35 pm

How long until there’s a Glass app to help remember someone’s name? Brin says facial recognition would be a handy feature, but “There’s a lot we’ve bitten off with this project as is. Facial recognition is an issue that society hasn’t figured out yet.”

John Paczkowski May 27, 20147:36 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:37 pm

Audience question time. Will Google do satellites next? “We already have a fleet of a million satellites,” Brin jokes. “There are no Google X projects related to satellites.” While he’s joking, he says he can’t talk about Google X’s fembot project. 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:37 pm

How will Google deal with Europe’s new ruling about the right to be forgotten, where people can request to have search results about themselves removed? “Great question. I wish we could just forget the ruling.” Brin says Google is working to figure this out but the concept is a bad idea. 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:38 pm

How will self-driving cars deal with morality questions, like whether to kill a pedestrian or get run over by a truck? Who dies? Brin is willing to talk it through, but he says: “These kind of hypothetical situations, we can debate as philosophers, but the fact is we can make cars that are safer than human drivers.”

John Paczkowski May 27, 20147:41 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:42 pm

What’s going on with Google’s Calico project and the “right to live forever”? Brin: “I know that Art Levinson has been busy building a team and they’re really excited about extending healthful life. … I think it’s great to have that direct mission rather than the less direct incentives people have at pharmaceuticals or biotech companies.” 

John Paczkowski May 27, 20147:45 pm

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:45 pm

A happy Google shareholder and Glass-wearer asks why does innovation take so long. Brin talks about supply chains, components, etc. “It’s coming along,” Brin says. “I’m always frustrated with development cycles.” Brin says in the old days when computing was done with punch cards and staplers, it seems like we could go faster than today with JavaScript and billions of lines of code.

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:47 pm

Brin tries to explain to Kara how this compares to composing a tweet, but she’s having none of it. 

Liz Gannes Liz Gannes May 27, 20147:47 pm

And that’s a wrap.