Google X Chief: We're Using Technology to Get Technology Out of the Way
Astro Teller believes antilock brakes are an example of technology at its best. Why? Because they solve a complex problem without drivers even noticing it.
“When technology reaches that level of invisibility in our lives, that's actually its ultimate goal, its highest and best purpose," said Teller, Google X's head of moonshots, at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York City today. "It vanishes into our lives. It meets us all the way, 100 percent of the way, on our side of the fence."
But most technology isn’t that seamless. Smartphones are a constant distraction and interruption in most of our daily lives. As Teller sees it, phones would be best if we could use them without having to carry them around.
It’s that kind of big-picture thinking that motivates projects like the self-driving car, Google Glass and new pain and blood-free way for diabetics to measure their glucose levels by way of a contact lens. At Google X, moonshots are aimed at improving our lives on the most fundamental level.
“Every day hundreds of millions of people stab themselves, bleed and then offer, like a sacrifice, to the glucose monitor they’re carrying with them. It’s such a bad user interface that even though in the medium-term it's life or death for these people, hundreds of millions of people don’t engage in this user interface," he said. "We can do better than that."
Some people believe that by always being connected we’re inherently in a situation that prevents us from being present, but Teller rejects that notion. Instead of being separate and apart, our online lives should be smoothly integrated into our physical ones.
“We’re excited about how technology can be used to get technology out of the way,” he said.
Critics of Google Glass -- the first product out of Google’s experimental labs that consumers could actually put their hands on -- raise concerns over the encroachment of technology into every nook and cranny of our lives. But Teller, and Glass Explorers say it's actually more intuitive and less distracting than a smartphone.
“The moonshot for Google Glass is to harmonize the physical and digital worlds. It is specifically to find a way to help people be naturally, elegantly situated, physical and digitally, at the same time," Teller said. "There’s no law of physics that that can’t happen just because we haven’t done it yet. Google Glass isn’t all the way there, but it’s a good thing to aspire to.”
The self-driving car mission is based on the same principle: eliminating the distracting interface that jerks our attention back-and-forth between our devices and our lives.
“That sort of micro sensing of the world, this micro controlling of every movement of the car, it makes no sense. Just like the antilock brakes, the experience you should have should be much more like, ‘I want to go home,’ ‘I want to go to work,’ ‘I want to go to the restaurant,’ and it just takes you there. And if you change your mind in the middle just say, ‘I changed my mind. Let’s go there first,’” Teller said. “That’s the level of which we’re actually thinking about our trip. And when cars can actually do that we’re going to look back and wonder that we ever had to micro control the cars in those ways.”
Benjamin Kabin is a Brooklyn-based technology journalist who specializes in security, startups, venture capital and social media.