Back Story: What's Your Superpower?

Google engineers debate the best superhuman abilities

2 min read

On a typically cloudless day in Mountain View, Calif., Google engineers are brainstorming feverishly, making emphatic notations on a whiteboard. Arcane tech problem? New business plan? Latest twist in the plot to rule cyberspace? No, these engineers are arguing the relative merits of superhuman powers. The choices? Invisibility versus flight, invisibility versus teleportation, flight versus teleportation, and the power to kill from 200 meters versus the power to move people with your mind.

The engineering mind-set knows no boundaries. Therefore, a traditionally short conversation ("Would you rather have the power of invisibility or the power of flight?") rapidly spins off new and philosophical threads enumerating hidden caveats and analyzing cost-benefit scenarios. Under the black-markered "The power to move you," someone uses a blue marker to replace "you" with "anyone." "What do you mean by move?" asks a red marker. "You made this no fun anymore," complains a blue marker, underscoring that point with a frowning face.

The superpower issue is not merely theoretical. When users complete a Google profile, they are asked to choose their preferred superpower. According to the whiteboard, Google engineers overwhelmingly prefer flight (16) to invisibility (9). The preference is even stronger for teleportation (21) over invisibility (3). But when flight and teleportation square off, they are more evenly matched: Teleportation wins 14 to 8.

Last October, Associate Editor Sally Adee visited the Googleplex to report on Google's planned Chrome operating system [see "Chrome the Conqueror"]. Three days before leaving, she put herself on a list to get an invitation from Google to try the preview version of Wave, Google's new e-mail/chat/collaboration tool. Knowing the list was long, she used her journalistic clout to cadge a Wave invitation ahead of the queue.

So what's your superpower, Sally? "Being able to wheedle an early Wave invite out of Stephanie Hannon," she sheepishly admits. (Hannon is the project manager for Wave, in Sydney.) "It's not flight, it's not teleportation, and it may not even be ethical, but it's all I've got."

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