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Google: Be a Little Evil
Google is now such a boon to Web users that it’s tempting to daydream about a real-world version of a perfect, all-knowing search engine. Why can’t we Google our drawers for the counterparts to those mateless socks, Google the parking lot to remember where we left the Volkswagen beater – or Google the neighborhood to see who’s looking for a used car?
As it turns out, Google’s aspirations run in that direction: the company says its mission is to “organize the world’s information.”Already, it has branched out beyond Web searching to help users find information in product databases, e-mail archives, and their own hard drives. And having gathered $1.67 billion from happy investors on the first day of its public offering last August, Google can afford to take its innovative search technology a long way further.
But will it get the opportunity? As writer and entrepreneur Charles Ferguson spells out in the pages ahead, Google’s ambitions put it on an irreversible collision course with Microsoft (see “What’s Next for Google?” p. 38). Though the software colossus is only beginning to mobilize on the search front, it is sure to come up with technologies that exploit its market-dominating operating system, desktop productivity software, and Web browser, so that search becomes a one-stop shopping experience for owners of Windows PCs.
If need be, Microsoft can outspend Google 30 times over on search-technology R&D. And that puts Google, despite its surging revenues and leading share of the search market, in a position disturbingly similar to that of Netscape in 1995. If it is to flourish – no, survive – Google must avoid the mistakes made by Microsoft’s previous victims and mount a campaign to make its search technology into a global standard.
It has already started, by giving outside programmers basic tools for interfacing with its search database and, most recently, for adding features to its highly useful Google Deskbar. It can do more. To turn Google into a true platform for a whole universe of search services – in the same way that Windows is a platform for thousands of third-party PC applications – the company must create much more sophisticated tools for accessing its global network of servers, as Amazon is busily doing (see “Amazon: Giving Away the Store”).
Google’s corporate motto is “Don’t be evil.” Employees of Google apparently take this to mean “Don’t be like Microsoft.”Thanks to its dominance in desktop operating systems, Web browsers, and office software, Microsoft is able to impose proprietary standards to which all other developers of Windows software must conform, and this has earned the company a great deal of resentment from both software users and software developers. Developers would prefer to create better software than the Windows franchise allows. Users would like to buy better products. If it promoted its own proprietary-but-open standards for search-related functions, Google might suffer some minor damage to its image of innocence – but it would also secure its place at the center of the search business and provide an entirely new sphere for software innovation.
So if Google is serious about being the world’s information gateway, it needs to start thinking a bit more like Microsoft. Everyone who uses the Internet should hope that happens – if only because software is better in markets where Microsoft has serious competition. Google must learn to be a little evil.
Don’t Buy That New Gadget
Does technology make us happy? Technologists, businesspeople, and most politicians assume so, celebrating its ability to improve our persons, experiences, and material circumstances. And ordinary human behavior seems to answer the question: if technology doesn’t make us happy, why do we spend so much time, effort and money developing and buying all the stuff?
But the answer is not so simple, as James Surowiecki explains in “Technology and Happiness.” People are irrational about what will promote their well-being, and they aren’t very good at anticipating their future preferences. Considering how many decisions about choosing new technologies are based on little (or even erroneous) information, perhaps we sometimes get stuck with technologies that don’t make us happy.
The social sciences have been nearly silent on the subject. Since 1974, however, when Richard Easterlin published an article titled “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?”, and more frequently in the last decade, economists have turned their attention to the vexing question of the complex relationship between wealth and happiness. Some of their insights can also be usefully applied to technology.
Easterlin and his disciples have demonstrated that while there is a strong correlation between poverty and misery, you can’t buy happiness. Despite the fantastic increase in the prosperity of the United States since World War II, most Americans are no happier today than they were in 1947 (when happiness surveys began). Indeed, according to social scientists, the numbers of Americans who say they are “very happy” has actually fallen since the 1970s, even while the average income of someone born in 1940 has increased 116 percent. It turns out that when everyone’s income swells, people’s subjective sense of what they minimally require to be happy inflates, too.
Psychologists call this “hedonic adaptation” – and it works for technology as well. We become desensitized to our good fortune. When international telephone calls, jet travel, or broadband Internet access first appeared, they were wonderful things that seem to clearly make our lives better, but as their price fell and they became commonly available, they quickly seemed quotidian. In no time at all, we were irritated when they did not work perfectly.
So are we happier for new technologies? In one sense, Sure (imagine yourself, hedonically adapted to this world, stripped of all your stuff). In another sense, No. Happiness economists have shown that there is a kind of decreasing return to increasing income. Except for the very wealthy (the Forbes 400 consistently report that they are very cheerful indeed), people who strive ardently to become richer don’t report any significant increase in well-being. Some happiness economists suggest that “inconspicuous consumption” – that is, investment in health, family, or community – tends to have a better return in happiness than buying bigger cars or houses.
It is the same with new technologies. Purchasing lots of the latest gadgets is unsatisfying: you know that in a few months there will be new, improved versions of the things. But some technology consumption is less conspicuous. Internet technologies like search or social networking are informational and affective networks that expand our knowledge and relationships. Biotechnology and health care offer a better and longer life. They’re the better buy.
To Mars, by Tortoise
In November, engineers at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, CA, conducted their third and final test of the X-43A scramjet – an unpiloted “supersonic combustion ramjet” that reached speeds of nearly Mach 10. The beauty of a scramjet is that it has none of the moving parts that compress air for combustion in a conventional jet; instead, the air is compressed by the vehicle’s own forward motion. This also gives scramjets a big advantage over rockets, which must carry their own oxygen aloft in heavy tanks.
The X-43A’s purpose was merely to prove the concept of hypersonic flight. But NASA believes future scramjets could be part of a next-generation system for launching piloted vehicles into space – and that makes the Dryden tests one hopeful sign that NASA’s program of human space exploration is rousing itself from its 30-year slumber. Not since February 8, 1974, when Skylab was abandoned by its third crew, has the United States had a continuous, purposeful human presence in space. The International Space Station hardly counts: thanks to the grounding of the remaining space shuttles, it’s halted in mid-construction and has a crew of two whose main job is to keep it from falling apart. Crew members come and go in Soviet-era Soyuz capsules. The shuttles themselves are a post-Apollo joke – $2 billion behemoths that, until the space station, had nowhere to go and nothing much to carry. They have also proved unacceptably dangerous, killing 14 astronauts since their initial flight in 1981.
It is time for a fresh start. If there is a post-Cold War rationale for sending humans into space – and Mark Williams argues in our new “Reviews” section that there is (see “Toward a New Vision of Manned Spaceflight”) – then Apollo-style crash projects and bloated, bureaucratized, cart-before-the-horse boondoggles like the shuttle program are not the way to put them there. Creating a permanent foundation for human exploration of the solar system will require a patient, incremental effort with tangible, science-driven goals – say, returning to the moon by 2020 and sending humans to Mars by 2050. In fact, this is the plan proposed by NASA and endorsed by President Bush last year. The first step will be the construction of a safer, simpler, Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) that can ascend to the space station, finally allowing NASA to send Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour off to the Smithsonian, where they belong. A second-generation lunar CEV would be built in orbit, whence rocketing on to the moon requires much less energy. The moon would then be the staging area for a third-generation CEV designed for the much longer trip to Mars.
There are, of course, enormous problems to be solved before this plan can proceed, such as how to shield interplanetary explorers from deadly solar and cosmic radiation and how to counter the debilitating effects of long-term weightlessness. But if NASA and international partners were to undertake a measured effort, with realistic milestones that spread the costs over a period of decades, then people under 40 – few of whom have any memory of Apollo – may yet live to see a Mars landing.
Real Benefits, Real Risks
Fullerenes, better known as buckyballs, have been the darlings of chemists ever since they were discovered two decades ago. These novel molecules are, after all, a third major form of carbon, in addition to diamonds and graphite. Shaped like tiny geodesic domes, they also have an undeniable elegance. In recent years, they have emerged as one of the most valuable materials in the rapidly developing field of nanotechnology. But during the last year, preliminary toxicity studies on buckyballs have set off warnings about their potential health hazards.
Concern about buckyballs is part of a more general uncertainty about the safety of nanomaterials. The worry is that nanoparticles can, among other things, easily penetrate cells, producing unknown effects. Indeed, a few enlightened nanotechnologists, notably those at Rice University’s Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN), have for several years been calling for further research on the biological effects of nanomaterials. Given the potential dangers, it makes good business sense that Mitsubishi, which is investing heavily in the manufacturing of fullerenes, has been actively dealing with the issue, working closely with Japanese authorities (see “Mitsubishi: Out Front in Nanotech”).
The problem is that Mitsubishi and Rice’s CBEN are the exceptions. The rest of the nanotech research community needs to recognize that toxicity questions are serious and cannot be ignored. No one knows what dangers may or may not exist. Expensive and time-consuming toxicity studies need to be done. Nanotechnology holds great promise: buckyballs are beginning to find uses in cancer drugs and solar cells, while other nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes, are likely to be even more useful. But for nanotech to go ahead, the public must be confident about the safety of these materials.
Much depends on the public’s understanding the real dangers. Worries over swarming non-existent nanorobots are ridiculous; fears about the health risks of buckyballs are not necessarily misplaced. (Last spring, a study showed buckyballs can cause brain damage in fish.) Those outside the nanotech community also need a better sense of the potential value of the technology. Public opposition to genetically modified organisms took root largely because few could see any compelling advantage to biotech crops such as herbicide-resistant soybeans. The lesson is simple: if industry wants consumers to accept risks, however small, it must show the public some tangible, substantial benefits. The nanotech industry would be well advised to keep focused on applications, such as cancer drugs and solar power, whose eventual payoffs are obvious.
The U.S. government has begun to invest money in understanding the risks of nanomaterials. The 2004 budgets of federal agencies participating in the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative included $106 million for research on the health and environmental issues related to nanomaterials. That’s a good first step. But definitive answers about the toxicity of various nanomaterials could take years. The government must not wait; it must begin now to formulate appropriate regulations to ensure the safe handling and use of nanomaterials. The two industries in which fullerenes are likely to have the most significant impact, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, are among the nation’s most highly regulated sectors. And rightly so: the public wants safe drugs and protection from hazardous chemicals. Nanomaterials should be included in this regulatory framework.