California Dreamin'

Spectral lines

Image: Annie Collinge/Getty Images

While archrival Microsoft hemorrhages cash and employees, Google is mapping out its plan for benevolent world domination. The company is flush, with US $16 billion in cash at press time, and its investment in new and existing projects constitutes a miniature economic-stimulus package unto itself. In November it was the Google Android cellphone. Last month it was the new interactive maps Google Earth Ocean and Google Mars, as well as Google Latitude, which allows subscribers to locate each other anytime, anywhere. And then there’s the new Chrome Web browser. Clearly, Google’s investment in R&D—$2.1 billion in 2007, according to IEEE Spectrum’s latest R&D 100 survey [PDF]--is bearing some luscious, and potentially lucrative, fruit.

But not every idea coming out of Google is a home run. Sometimes it’s a punch line to a joke waiting to happen. Witness the company’s recent investment in Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity University. The amount of money is insignificant by Google’s standards—at a minimum of $250 000 (the Corporate Founder level), it’s less than a thousandth of one percent of cash on hand. The effect on the company’s good name might prove to be less trivial.

Still, you’ve gotta admire the sheer chutzpah of it. In the middle of the worst economic crisis in a lifetime came word that Google and NASA are bankrolling the ”university” at NASA’s Ames Research Center, not far from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. ”We are anchoring the university in what is the lab today, with an understanding of what’s in the realm of possibility in the future,” Peter Diamandis, vice-chancellor of Kurzweil’s Klown Kollege and chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, told the Financial Times. ”The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.”

We’re right with you, Peter, at least the crazy part, as much of the coverage in Spectrum ’s special report on the singularity makes clear [see http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/singularity]. As Diamandis says, anything is in the realm of possibility in the future. The sun might explode tomorrow. Osama bin Laden might start doing stand-up comedy routines in Las Vegas. And Ray Kurzweil might help usher in a beneficent singularity, where machines smarter than we can imagine treat us, as science-fiction writer and singularity theorist Vernor Vinge once said, like pets.

Hey, why not? We’re already throwing billions, if not trillions, of dollars at an economic mess in part facilitated by financial-risk algorithms, the crazy uncles of our future machine overlords. Leaving aside NASA’s questionable role in this whole enterprise, Google is free to blow money on the kind of interdisciplinary research that, in Kurzweil’s vision, will make him immortal. And with a faculty graced by some of Google’s heavy hitters, like Peter Norvig and Vinton Cerf—as well as non-Googlers like medical doctor Terry Grossman, Kurzweil’s coauthor on Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and partner in expensive dietary supplements—no doubt a few eager postdocs will fork over $25 000 for nine weeks of study. Let’s add a few more to the sad tally of good human minds sucked into the thrall of Mr. Kurzweil and his obsessive quest to deny Death his due. But while they’re at it, we’re wondering if Google might throw Spectrum some cash, too. One of our editors has volunteered to live long enough to live forever, and a few years’ worth of Ray & Terry’s Anti-Aging MultiPack ($86.75 per 30-day supply), plus the hefty cost of the consciousness upload, is going to stress our limited budget.

Or we could take that money and do something worthwhile. If you had $1 million to bestow on an educational institution, what would you want your money to fund? Tell us at http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/milliondollarideas.

Part of this column appeared in our Tech Talk blog on 3 February 2009.

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