Why do technology research? Is Google’s car going to lead anywhere?

By now you know Google is doing research into making cars drive by themselves. This continues research done earlier at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and other places. If you really want to see innovation, watch the interview I did back in 2007 with Mike Montemerlo. He was the artificial intelligence guy behind Stanford’s DARPA challenge team (they won that contest back in 2005 and have been competitive ever since).

I remember thinking that Mike was doing the coolest stuff and that of all the geeks I met he had the greatest chance of really changing how the world works. After all, most of us spend hours per week in our cars, especially in California where public transportation options suck (I could take a bus to San Francisco, for instance, but I’d have to switch routes half a dozen times and it would take three hours, instead of the 45 minutes it takes driving.

So, why is Google doing this research?

Why is IBM, a few miles away, doing research into atomic structures?

Why is Microsoft doing research into “any surface” computing that they call LightSpace?

A few weeks ago I was in Andy Wilson’s lab, talking with him about LightSpace. He asked me not to film, but you can see the video of his lab here. Who is Andy? Well, he was the researcher that came up with the ideas that turned into Microsoft Surface. He is doing some of the coolest research into futuristic computing technologies that I’ve seen anywhere. You really need to see Andy’s video (sorry, you’ll need Microsoft’s Silverlight loaded to view this video):

At IBM they let me move a single Iron atom across a piece of copper. And, at Stanford they are doing all sorts of research, including into weird flying robots that can be used for a bunch of different things (heck, one attacked me).

So, what are these folks telling me they do pure research for?

1. To figure out what’s needed from infrastructure in the future.
2. To discover how humans will use technology and how the technology will need to adapt to the humans.
3. To figure out how to affordably build futuristic tech.
4. To help researchers connect with each other and push the state of the art further.
5. To write up patents that will be the economic engines of their sponsoring companies.
6. To claim ground as “world leader” in a certain tech.
7. To build an ecosystem that turns into an industry (look at Boeing’s 787, for instance, and how its parts come from companies all over the world).

So, in that light, lets look at Google’s new self-driving car. Will it lead anywhere?

Here’s some things that research could lead to:

1. Better turn-by-turn directions for cars.
2. Better real-time mapping information. My Toyota already tells me whether there’s gas stations, hotels, or fast food at the next freeway exit. I imagine Google’s cars can tell you a lot more than that.
3. Better road design. Always look for unintended consequences of tech research. Remember, the Web came out of CERN who was smashing atoms. Google’s cameras can pick up confusing road design and map it for crews to fix, leading to safer roads for us all. My Toyota has trouble discerning old paint, for instance. Will these technologies be able to tell road managers when it’s time to repaint lanes?
4. New kinds of traffic controls. Listen to Mike and he’ll tell you the algorithms he had to write to get robotic cars safely through intersections. Will this new car research inform us as to the kinds of traffic controls (signs, lights, etc) that we’ll need in the future? Will it help us build new light timing systems to help traffic move smoothly?
5. New kinds of 3D control surfaces. These cars are building detailed 3D maps of the space that they travel through. Will those new surfaces need new controls? Of course! Second Life isn’t good enough for the data these cars are collecting.
6. New kinds of infrastructure. Each time these cars drive they gather gigabytes and, potentially, terabytes, of information. Now, imagine millions of cars that all could report home about what they were seeing on the road. That will require building new datacenters, new ways of filtering that information, and new database technology that can handle huge amounts of real-time info.
7. New kinds of human/computer interactions. If your car is going to drive itself, at least some of the time, you’ll need new kinds of input methods (voice? Touch? Gestures?) and they will need to be tested out on a lot more than 140,000 miles that these Google cars have driven so far.

Anyway, there’s lots to learn. I’m glad that the tech industry is taking on research in these, and other, areas. Even ones where people might say “that’s lame.” I remember when my friends told me Twitter is lame, but now it’s very important way to get the news.

Or, as Techcrunch’s Mike Arrington says, why do it? Because they can!

If you are doing world-changing technology research I would love to come and visit you. Send me email at scobleizer@gmail.com or call me at +1-425-205-1921

Why else do research? Comment here and let me know if you are doing technology research and why you’re doing it.

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

24 thoughts on “Why do technology research? Is Google’s car going to lead anywhere?

  1. We can very well say the Car companies already been looking into this option and trying out. And this obviously will take so longer time to actually evolve into a real self-driving car to work on road completely. It’s not just technology but there are multiple natural effects to take care of, which might come to light only after it has come to the user’s hand. This long time is sufficient for copy cats to create a replica of it and start the business.
    I would say, its not that easy for Google to earn money from this project, but definitely this innovation’s credit will go to Google.

  2. I personally know of car companies doing research and having test tracks, years ago. Some might have heard of Daimler (former Daimler-Chrysler, the company that makes Mercedes and Mercedes-Benz cars/trucks) and of BMW.

    I never followed up on what they are up to recently. Googlebing yourselves.

  3. They’re researching it so Robert can shoot video from the driver’s seat without endangering the rest of us…

  4. Thanks for writing this article. Now the Google car research makes a little more sense. At first I though that they had so much money that they could afford to burn it on things that will never contribute to profit.

  5. That’s great! Invent another thing that will be manufactured in China. We export more jobs and we pay them more money so we can buy the thing invented here. Then they can spam us even more. Isnt that the current consumer model? The only way this research could benefit the US people is if the Feds print more money to buy the tech for their ‘skynet’-Hopefully, they would tool up parts of America to build it (After all, why let a foreign power build your defense tech-they could put a bootkit into one of the chips and have a mobile botnet that we drive around) Meanwhile the half of the world that remains illiterate and impoverished gets left further in the dust. And we get fatter and more dependent.I understand how automobile research dovetails nicely into google maps. But it’s a business decison-you know-you go where the money is. There’s no profit in dealing with the billions of people who are destitute , right? At least no short term profit. I would think a robot that does NOT encourage more driving would be better for us all. How about gps enabled bicycles and heated, covered bikeways? Come on Google. How about a solar powered tabletpc running chromium?

  6. That’s great! Invent another thing that will be manufactured in China. We export more jobs and we pay them more money so we can buy the thing invented here. Then they can spam us even more. Isnt that the current consumer model? The only way this research could benefit the US people is if the Feds print more money to buy the tech for their ‘skynet’-Hopefully, they would tool up parts of America to build it (After all, why let a foreign power build your defense tech-they could put a bootkit into one of the chips and have a mobile botnet that we drive around)

    Meanwhile the half of the world that remains illiterate and impoverished gets left further in the dust. And we get fatter and more dependent.

    I understand how automobile research dovetails nicely into google maps. But it’s a business decison-you know-you go where the money is. There’s no profit in dealing with the billions of people who are destitute , right? At least no short term profit. I would think a robot that does NOT encourage more driving would be better for us all. How about gps enabled bicycles and heated, covered bikeways? Come on Google. How about a solar powered tabletpc running chromium?

  7. That’s great! Invent another thing that will be manufactured in China. We export more jobs and we pay them more money so we can buy the thing invented here. Then they can spam us even more. Isnt that the current consumer model? The only way this research could benefit the US people is if the Feds print more money to buy the tech for their ‘skynet’-Hopefully, they would tool up parts of America to build it (After all, why let a foreign power build your defense tech-they could put a bootkit into one of the chips and have a mobile botnet that we drive around)

    Meanwhile the half of the world that remains illiterate and impoverished gets left further in the dust. And we get fatter and more dependent.

    I understand how automobile research dovetails nicely into google maps. But it’s a business decison-you know-you go where the money is. There’s no profit in dealing with the billions of people who are destitute , right? At least no short term profit. I would think a robot that does NOT encourage more driving would be better for us all. How about gps enabled bicycles and heated, covered bikeways? Come on Google. How about a solar powered tabletpc running chromium?

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  10. @IBM, Arizona iced tea can FTW!

    The Google car research could find its way into very unexpected places. Imagine streaming the sensor data & AI decisions from the carBot into the Google Maps database. What could they do to the Street View UI with this detailed information? Navigation could tell your teenager YR DOING IT WRONG when it sees deviations between their driving style and previously recorded(or emulated) carBot data.

    Nice video BTW Robert..

  11. I agree with all your reasons, but have another to offer. If they don’t do this kind of research they will be left behind. Tech changes too much and too fast to not be on the cutting edge. Become complacent, hesitate,or even just fail to figure out how to leverage the newest technology and you’ll be left in the dust. That’s why Google is testing driverless cars and Yahoo is figuring out how to stay in business.

  12. uh.. nothing new here. Stanford has been working on driverless cars for 15 years.. same for Mercedes in Palo Alto, Toyota too. I wonder if Google’s uses differential GPS, which references a known location on earth to get better accuracy. There are several govt agency working on sensoring up the roads to test these technologies too. Interesting how google just has a bigger PR capability because they’re google.

    1. Yes, did you see the thing on the wheel on the Google car? It’s obvious that they are very accurately measuring where they’ve been and where they are going. Plus, did you watch the video I did with the researcher at Stanford? The Google project COMES OUT OF STANFORD.

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