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The future is now

In honour of Google's 15th birthday, we ID its ten most radical dream tech projects

In the 15 years since its birth as Stanford University class project, Google has developed into the Skynet of our age: an all-encompassing tech giant that's investing billions into researching radical future technologies. From wind turbine drones to hush-hush research lairs, we track down the Google-prompted developments that will be radically altering the way we live, work and play.    


Last year, Google pumped $6.8 billion into research and development – up 79 percent from 2010. The probable beneficiary of that money? Google X, its top-secret research division. Overseen by Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, Google X has engineered most, if not all, of the projects on this list – and the more out-there they are, the better. Projects are referred to as “moonshots” within Google X, the better to emphasise their ambitions: to reach for the moon – and beyond. 


It’s easy to forget that two-thirds of the world’s population still don’t have internet access, but Google hasn't. Its solution? Meet Project Loon, which floats wifi-enabling balloons 20km into the earth’s stratosphere and steering them to places with little to no internet coverage. An initial pilot in New Zealand has already proved successful, and Google is now refining the technology for the next phase. 


Imagine a world where everything you own is fully integrated with the internet. Before you even reached home from the office, you could turn on your heating, set your coffee pot to brew and download the last Breaking Bad episode to your laptop. While Google isn’t the only company working on the Web of Things, it’s one of Google X’s pet projects, which is unsurprising – if every object you own is web-enabled, guess who ends up owning your objects (or at least, the information stored on them)? Google. 


 Earlier this month, Wired reporters realised that employees at WIMM Labs, one of the first companies to create an Android smartwatch, had updated their LinkedIn profiles to include their new boss: Google. The company quietly bought WIMM last year and staking out a claim in the emerging smartwatch market, which could be worth an estimated $50 billion


Exactly what it sounds like: a lift going into outer space. Google can’t take credit for the original idea, which dates back to the 19th century and features in several sci-fi novels, like Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal The Fountains of Paradise. Despite several insider reports to the contrary, Google has repeatedly denied they’re working on a space elevator – maybe because in 2012, they were pipped to the post by Obayashi Corporation, a Japanese construction company, which announced it could build one in 2051. 


Google Glass is probably the most well-known Google X project, and the most divisive. Certainly, not everyone’s down for the idea of wearing what’s essentially a computer processor on your face: with objections ranging from privacy to aesthetic ugliness, Google has acknowledged that the general public has a long way to go till it embraces Glass. 


This September, Google launched a new company that seeks to solve death – or at least, that’s what the Time magazine exclusive said. Not much is known about what Calico will actually do, but Google has said it will primarily focus on biomedical technologies that can help fight age-related disease. As more cycnical commentators have pointed out, it makes sense that Google’s founders are interested in cheating death ­– after all, it’d take several lifetimes to spend their wealth. 


Already a reality; California, Florida and Nevada have issued licences for autonomous cars. The company has so far test driven ten cars, clocking up over 300,000 driver-free miles between them – and there are reports that Google has initiated talks with auto manufacturers and is looking into building a fleet of robo-taxis


A single computer is terrible at detecting patterns and thinking for itself, but a huge network of computers might get somewhere. Google X researchers created a neural network out 16,000 processor cores to see if the network could learn something by itself – namely, how to recognise a cat. After a week of watching and processing information from YouTube, the network taught itself to identify cats. It might not sound like much, but if self-taught neural networks can analyse and evaluate information, we wouldn’t need to label any of our data – the network would understand it on its own. 


Back in May, Google announced that it had acquired Makani Power, a startup that builds wind turbines on robot-piloted kites.  Essentially, the drone kites fly in circles, collecting energy from the wing-mounted turbines and sending it back to earth via a conductive tether. So basically, Google won’t just be powering the internet – it could be powering your computer, too.