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Google Looked Into Space Elevator, Hoverboards, and Teleportation 98

Posted by Soulskill
from the go-big-or-go-home-on-your-hoverboard dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Google has a huge research budget and an apparent willingness to take on huge projects. They've gotten themselves into autonomous cars, fiber optic internet, robotics, and Wi-Fi balloons. But that raises a question: if they're willing to commit to projects as difficult and risk as those, what projects have they explored but rejected? Several of the scientists working at Google's 'innovation lab' have spilled the beans: '[Mag-lev] systems have a stabilizing structure that keeps trains in place as they hover and move forward in only one direction. That couldn't quite translate into an open floor plan of magnets that keep a hoverboard steadily aloft and free to move in any direction. One problem, as Piponi explains, is that magnets tend to keep shifting polarities, so your hoverboard would constantly flip over as you floated around moving from a state of repulsion to attraction with the magnets. Any skateboarder could tell you what that means: Your hoverboard would suck. ... If scaling problems are what brought hoverboards down to earth, material-science issues crashed the space elevator. The team knew the cable would have to be exceptionally strong-- "at least a hundred times stronger than the strongest steel that we have," by Piponi's calculations. He found one material that could do this: carbon nanotubes. But no one has manufactured a perfectly formed carbon nanotube strand longer than a meter. And so elevators "were put in a deep freeze," as Heinrich says, and the team decided to keep tabs on any advances in the carbon nanotube field.'"
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Google Looked Into Space Elevator, Hoverboards, and Teleportation

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  • Anyone who's seen Back to the Future knows hoverboards are just around the corner.
    • by Roxoff (539071)

      Yeah. I've got two in the garage somewhere. I never use 'em because they keep flipping over...

    • by Big Hairy Ian (1155547) on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @06:56AM (#46765549)
      Actually it was those bevelled corners that were the problem it infringed on an apple patent
    • by Dogtanian (588974)

      Anyone who's seen Back to the Future knows hoverboards are just around the corner.

      Given that the title of the thread is "Google Looked Into Space Elevator, Hoverboards, and Teleportation", my suspicion is that Google got their inspiration from "Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator", "Back to the Future II" and "Star Trek" respectively.

      They abandoned the "space elevator" idea because they were worried about cosmic rays and Vermicious Knids.

    • ...and are about to slam into your shins...

    • You arrange small rare earth magnets in a checkerboard pattern. Now your hoverboard wants to tear itself apart, but at least you can get hover with electromagnets in the surface. A low latency link between pressure sensors on the surface and the electromagnet controls does the rest.
  • ...maintain an AI system of "waiting on better materials" projects while keeping abreast of materials research? Seems like they'd then know which startups to fund/acquire.
    • by Katatsumuri (1137173) on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @05:54AM (#46765301)

      And more generally, if you are the world's leader in fetching, organizing and navigating the information, it puts you in a great position to jump on new trends.

      I believe Google's business plan goes like this:
      1. Master the world's information flow.
      2. Make some money in the process.
      3. Invest in promising new technology.
      4. Strengthen your competitive advantage even more.
      5. Massive profit.
      6. World domination.

      See? No "???" item.

      As a technocratic optimist, I am glad that this plan extends the human knowledge and power. But I'm also worried that this power will likely be concentrated in one mega-corporation.

      • you missed Using their massive data collection and sifting abilities spot interesting ideas and trends and be first to patent them and than bill / sue anyone who uses the patents
        • by swillden (191260)

          you missed Using their massive data collection and sifting abilities spot interesting ideas and trends and be first to patent them and than bill / sue anyone who uses the patents

          At present, at least, Google's policy is not to sue over patents, except defensively. This could always change, but I seriously doubt it will while Larry Page is in charge.

        • I'm always hearing about google being the target of Steve Jobs' ego-driven "thermonuclear war" with patents. What are some examples of google patent trolling as you've suggested? I'm not saying I think google is actually behaving unlike a corporation, just that I don't know of any examples of them doing what you're saying they're doing.
      • by swillden (191260)

        Actually, I think you've got the process right, but the motives wrong. Google's primary goal is the technology, the profits and competitive advantage are a means to that end, not the other way around.

        • That may be the case now, at least I like to believe it, too. The problem is, the corporations have no soul, and the next CTO / board / whoever makes decisions may have different priorities.
          • by swillden (191260)
            I don't have any concerns as long as Page and Brin are running the show. You're right that a future CEO could make other decisions... though he'd have to change the company culture first, or face mass rebellion.
        • by Raenex (947668)

          Google's primary goal is the technology, the profits and competitive advantage are a means to that end, not the other way around.

          They are empire building. The technology is a means to that end.

          • by swillden (191260)

            Google's primary goal is the technology, the profits and competitive advantage are a means to that end, not the other way around.

            They are empire building. The technology is a means to that end.

            The basis for your claim is?

            The basis for my claim is three years of seeing how the company operates and what decisions it makes, and how, from the inside.

            • by Raenex (947668)

              The basis for your claim is?

              The basis for my claim is three years of seeing how the company operates and what decisions it makes, and how, from the inside.

              My basis is the same as yours, except not from the inside, and not from just three years. I've been following Google since their early days. They used to be an Internet search company. I can't reference it, but I swear at one point as they were getting big they said they were going to remain focused on search.

              The tipping point came when they bought YouTube for an obscene amount of money (at the time). You don't spread your tendrils in such fashion throughout the industry just because you like technology.

              • by swillden (191260)

                My basis is the same as yours, except not from the inside, and not from just three years.

                Then it's not the same as mine. I've also followed the company from the beginning... and I have the benefit of the insider view.

                The tipping point came when they bought YouTube for an obscene amount of money (at the time). You don't spread your tendrils in such fashion throughout the industry just because you like technology.

                YouTube was a very obvious acquisition. What YouTube needed to survive and grow was low-cost scalability and a way to monetize the views it was getting. What Google had was massive data centers and network connectivity, plus a proven revenue model. YouTube also needed a better search engine, and Google was interested in finding ways to index and search non-textual content. It was a

                • by Raenex (947668)

                  Then it's not the same as mine. I've also followed the company from the beginning... and I have the benefit of the insider view.

                  Unless your insider view involved board meetings making top-level executive decisions, I'm not impressed.

                  YouTube was a very obvious acquisition. What YouTube needed to survive and grow was low-cost scalability and a way to monetize the views it was getting. What Google had was massive data centers and network connectivity, plus a proven revenue model.

                  YouTube managed to grow to epic proportions before Google had to "save" them, as you imply. They also good have slapped ads onto their service at any time without Google buying them out.

                  YouTube also needed a better search engine, and Google was interested in finding ways to index and search non-textual content. It was an ideal match, technologically.

                  This is garbage. Google didn't have to buy YouTube to figure out how to search videos. In fact, Google already had their own video service in operation when they bought YouTube. What Google wanted was YouTube's marketshar

                  • by swillden (191260)

                    Then it's not the same as mine. I've also followed the company from the beginning... and I have the benefit of the insider view.

                    Unless your insider view involved board meetings making top-level executive decisions, I'm not impressed.

                    Obviously not, but you may not realize how open the company is internally. Larry Page stands up in front of the entire company every week, for example, and takes -- and answers -- live questions. There are no negative consequences for asking hard questions, and hard questions do get asked. Sometimes the executives duck or dance around them, but not very often, and questions that aren't really answered continue getting asked until they do get answered.

                    In addition to that, other than things like acquisition

                    • by Raenex (947668)

                      In addition to that, other than things like acquisitions there are very few "top-level executive decisions" at Google. Most decisionmaking is driven from the bottom up.

                      You're probably still not impressed.

                      You're right, I'm not. "Things like acquisitions" are what empire building is all about. Google had their own video service but wanted YouTube's marketshare. They've stuck their fingers in a lot of other pies as well. It's not about the technology.

    • I think you hit the nail right on the head: besides projects they can undertake themselves if a study shows they are more or less feasible, they are looking for longer term investment opportunities. The article didn't mention any of that, but it seems reasonable that Project X is not just about turning ideas into products, but also a factory of patents, and a way to get the jump on competitors when it comes to buying companies that do actual research into promising new tech.
  • "so your hoverboard would constantly flip over as you floated around moving from a state of repulsion to attraction with the magnets." That's not a problem. Use many tiny magnetized cylinders beneath a hard top for standing. The cylinders can constantly flip, it wont affect the top which can be held in place separately - but they will be able to keep whatever they're holding up afloat. The rider wont even feel the cylinders spinning or flipping. Innovation lab my ass, pfft. :D
    • "so your hoverboard would constantly flip over as you floated around moving from a state of repulsion to attraction with the magnets." That's not a problem. Use many tiny magnetized cylinders beneath a hard top for standing. The cylinders can constantly flip, it wont affect the top which can be held in place separately - but they will be able to keep whatever they're holding up afloat. The rider wont even feel the cylinders spinning or flipping. Innovation lab my ass, pfft. :D

      Fuck, why didn't I think of that? I mean, sorry, I already thought of that--my attorney will be in touch with your attorney shortly.

    • The cylindrical magnets will naturally rotate to 'attract mode' thus gluing your board to the surface.
      • Hard to translate facetiousness in text, but trust me, I wasn't being serious :D if it were that simple I'd be slangin' that shit direct from China.
  • by rtb61 (674572) on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @05:26AM (#46765233) Homepage

    Once thing they should look at is a city within a single mega-structure. A old idea seemingly long since abandoned but one that incorporates many research oppurtunities and even the possibility of near future development. It allows investigation into waste removal incorporating energy generation, acceptable internal living space design, fire control, sound control, effective heat utilisation and management, network communications, delivery systems, internalised productions, internal transport systems, air control systems, energy management and recovery etc. This kind of major development research project provides great returns because of the large varied range of individual research projects that are incorporated with it.

    Logically crafting an MMO simulation of it allowing in depth investigating of the personal interactions as well as prompting public input into the various research components would be a major part of the modern developmental exercise.

    • by tlambert (566799) on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @06:11AM (#46765347)

      Once thing they should look at is a city within a single mega-structure.

      Why should they build an Arcology, when there are already two in progress:

      Masdar City in Abu Dhabi: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M... [wikipedia.org]

      Arcosanti North of Phoenix Arizona: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A... [wikipedia.org]

      • Really, there's one. Arcosanti is very cool, but it's been "in progress" since the early 1970s. At this point, they're barely keeping up with the wear and tear on what's already there.

    • by towermac (752159)

      "Logically crafting an MMO simulation of it allowing in depth investigating of the personal interactions ..."

      If I could do it as a feral druid, I'm in.

    • One part of this should be to design automated digging machines. Like Seatle's Bertha, though at various scales. Electricity and telecommunication woulkd become cheaper if they could automate cable laying. ( Not to mention sewers ).

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @06:28AM (#46765423) Journal
      There's a big difference between 'cautionary tale' and 'impossible' (indeed, 'cautionary tale' is one of the valuable tools that designers can use to make things possible and not fuck them up...); but anytime somebody proposes some arcology-style megastructure, I immediately think of all those (relatively modern, relatively upscale in terms of rent/unit area and clientele, office buildings that can't even maintain comfortable temperatures in many of their rooms, despite being built, by a single entity in the position to dictate the solution used, at a point in history where networked, digital, temperature sensors are nearly free compared to the price of putting up a decent, code-compliant, office building...

      That's obviously exactly the sort of problem that 'big data' people probably love, just throw a few more sensors in there, let us crunch the numbers and build an expert system to control the heating ducts, etc; but it's also an example of how even people who should know better, and who can afford to buy what they need to do better, fuck up so often it isn't even a surprise anymore. On an arcology scale, that sort of incompetence starts to edge into 'life-support failure' territory.
      • by rasmusbr (2186518)

        Yeah, I suspect that's what happens when there is a speculative bubble in housing, when all you need is a greater fool who you can pass the unit on to at a profit. Just make sure to show it to the buyers on a cool day...

      • by rtb61 (674572)

        Air-conditioning is a design all upon it's own. The real problem is engineers love big units which generally fail, the modern solution http://www.mitsubishielectric.... [mitsubishi...ric.com.au] (as an example) have no problem and even generate benefits of shifting heat from areas that don't need it too areas that do. Whilst capital expensive, pumping around refrigerant and high pressure fresh air is far more efficient than ducting around large volumes of air attempting to use control vanes to adjust fro air delivered at uncomforta

    • And then you can build a mega-city out of such mega-buildings. And then Judge Dredd can't be far behind :)

    • by rasmusbr (2186518)

      The first cities which were, curiously, built by hunter-gatherers were effectively a single building that got added to each time a new family moved in. The door of a home was either a hole in the roof or a hole in a wall facing the roof. These sort of cities are still being built today. They're called slums.

      Now, before we run off and investigate this exciting idea of having a whole city inside a building, perhaps we should investigate why that idea has been tried and ultimately discarded over and over in co

    • Like a castle?

    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      We tried a simplified version in the 60s with tower blocks. Shops at the bottom, flats on top, all the amenities anyone would need within walking distance. They quickly turned into ghettos where no-one wanted to live. Turns out that for a successful community you need space, diversity and people travelling around to interact with outsiders. Otherwise it turns into a medieval village pretty quickly.

      • by rtb61 (674572)

        They turned into ghettos because the flats were substandard, compact, very little amenity, poor sound rating, poorly air-conditioned and were targeted at a particular client base, not counting those sold to slum landlords who ran them down, so basically bullshit when it comes to comparing it to sound modern design. Turns out that no knowledge crap is no knowledge crap and bears no relationship to exceedingly high priced modern condominiums.

  • After reading the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, I think when talking about the space elevator, we should always consider what happens if (when?) it fails. Space fountains seem much more appealing.
    • by feedayeen (1322473) on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @06:26AM (#46765417)

      After reading the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, I think when talking about the space elevator, we should always consider what happens if (when?) it fails. Space fountains seem much more appealing.

      * The center of mass is in orbit, the structure won't fling itself far off into space.

      * The segment of the string above the break will be under less tension which means it'll spring back a bit, but it's not in orbit down there so it'll be pulled back down to the earth so we could repair it.

      * The segment below the cut will plummet down. Regardless of the material, we can safely assume at least several hundred tons of material will be falling from the sky which will completely destroy the ground based installation.

      * Weird part is that it's not going to fall straight down. Even though the thing is stationary over the surface of the earth, the angular momentum at the top is going to be higher than below. As the top falls, it'll speed relative to the Eastward rotation of the Earth causing it to fall on the stuff to the East.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        * The segment below the cut will plummet down. Regardless of the material, we can safely assume at least several hundred tons of material will be falling from the sky which will completely destroy the ground based installation.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator_safety#In_the_event_of_failure
        " However, in most cable designs, the upper portion of any cable that falls to Earth would burn up in the atmosphere. Additionally, because proposed initial cables have very low mass (roughly 1 kg per kilome

        • One ton of feathers, regardless if dropped one at a time, will smother and crush you. If it doesn't fall in a pile? Wonderful. Now you have forty-thousand square miles of fiber to clean up.

          It is incumbent upon those who propose a technology to downplay the dangers. It is incumbent upon everyone else to point our their flawed logic.
    • I think it's pretty likely that people smart enough to make a space elevator will be smart enough to consider what happens when it goes wrong. Whether they will find it worthwhile to do anything about it is a different story, but it will be considered, that's for sure.
  • The things have more uses than space elevators. A thinner stronger cable is always going to have uses even if it's only a few metres.
    • by towermac (752159)

      No doubt.

      Seems like a weightless environment would make it a lot easier to make longer nanotubes. And, NASA needs a mission. Surely you see where I'm going with this.

      Go ahead and put a nanotube research station in geosynchronous orbit. When they drop that cable, the researchers can come home. ;)

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Wednesday April 16, 2014 @06:34AM (#46765453) Journal

      The things have more uses than space elevators. A thinner stronger cable is always going to have uses even if it's only a few metres.

      If we could fab them cheaply (and they don't turn out to be as carcinogenic as irradiated super-death-asbestos or anything), we'd probably use carbon nanotubes in everything. All sorts of neat thermal and electrical properties, strong as hell, just replace fiberglass with engineered carbon and feel the strength!

      However, (aside from the pure sci-fi value) I think the reason that space elevators get the attention is that, unlike many other things that are entirely doable with lesser carbon fiber, fiberglass, aramid, etc. but would be X% better with nanotubes; the going consensus seems to be "If you want to stretch a rope from earth to orbit, it has to be This Strong, and that really narrows the options down to carbon nanotubes and, um, um...

      The question of whether what we build with carbon fiber composites today will be better tomorrow is interesting; but its a 'difference of degree not of kind' sort of thing. 'Space elevator' vs. 'Haha, huddle in your gravity well like pitiful ants!' is a much more dramatic matter.

  • ..was that they don't work on water unless you've got power.
  • How would you steer this imaginary hoverboard? A skateboard will continue rolling in one direction only, as long as you do nothing. The various ways of controlling a skateboard rely on high friction in other directions. Turn it sideways quickly and you can stop it, if you know what you're doing. A hoverboard would simply continue hovering sideways, and you'd have no way to turn it without a wall or something. Similarly, there would be much less room for tricks that rely on hitting the deck against somethin

    • In space, 'just use rockets' is not the answer people want to hear, because mass is precious.

      In an atmosphere, though, all you need is a little extra battery power to shove air in whatever direction you prefer, which works just fine for modifying your path. It wouldn't be much like skateboarding; but I suspect that if you threw some accelerometers, clever math, and a mixture of control surfaces and glorified model airplane thrusters at the problem you could have a system that can be 'steered' by shifting
      • by TeknoHog (164938)

        In space, 'just use rockets' is not the answer people want to hear, because mass is precious. In an atmosphere, though, all you need is a little extra battery power to shove air in whatever direction you prefer, which works just fine for modifying your path. It wouldn't be much like skateboarding; but I suspect that if you threw some accelerometers, clever math, and a mixture of control surfaces and glorified model airplane thrusters at the problem you could have a system that can be 'steered' by shifting your body weight, as people are accustomed to, with the actual work being handled by the aerodynamic components, since you don't have solid objects to push off of. Doesn't solve the 'make hoverboard hover' problem; but if you ignore that...

        True, so it would basically take fans/propellers. Ideally, though, the hover mechanism itself would automatically enable some level of steering via weight shifting. Imagine a regular hovercraft modified for extra ground clearance. If you tilt it, it's pushing more air to one side than the other. It should also work this way in the plasma levitation systems envisioned in the paper I linked above. But in practice you'd probably want some additional control.

        • I suspect that the hover mechanism could do a fair bit of the work; but I posited additional elements because it would be a bit of a downer if the hover mechanism were tuned too far in the direction of being a good thruster/steering element, since you'd be walking a potentially touchy compromise between being capable of aggressive maneuvers and being inherently stable, rather than liable to assist you in tipping over even faster and harder that gravity would cover if you leaned too far out of the equilibriu
  • If scaling problems are what brought hoverboards down to earth, material-science issues crashed the space elevator. [...] no one has manufactured a perfectly formed carbon nanotube strand longer than a meter.

    So quit [publically bitching about all the amazing things you'd like do if only technology was up to scratch with your overly ambitious plans]* and get to work on perfecting longer carbon nanotube strands. Lazy fuckers.

    *aka marketing

    • by Sarten-X (1102295)
      ...because marketing people are really just brilliant materials scientists who just haven't focused on nanotubes yet.
  • The space elevator is so passé.
    I'd rather see they research things like molecular biology. There's so much more to gain there, imho.

    Anyway, it is nice to see that they do more than developing boring online office applications.

  • one of these things is not like the others

  • The one thing that always seemed like a problem to me is how fast space elevators are, and how long would it take to reach orbit.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      And there are only so many times you can hear "The Girl from Ipanema" before you go homicidal.

    • Low earth orbit is only about 200 km in space. Even if you're talking about a speed of 1 km per day you'll still be able to deliver payloads to LEO within the year. Rockets still exist with their $25k per kg fee for stuff you need in space NOW but the space elevator has the ability to bring things into space at a much cheaper rate (maybe $300 / kg)

      Plus "climbers" are envisioned to come in multiple forms and be able to pass each other. You might have a "human transport climber" that ascends at 20km / h bu

      • by 91degrees (207121)
        LEO isn't about height though. We can get there pretty easily. X-15s managed to get half way there in the 1960's. You need to get to about 15,000mph to actually do anything useful at that altitude.
        • by swillden (191260)

          LEO isn't about height though. We can get there pretty easily. X-15s managed to get half way there in the 1960's. You need to get to about 15,000mph to actually do anything useful at that altitude.

          Since the space elevator's center of mass is orbiting, climbing the elevator would also get you to orbital speeds. Indeed, one limiting factor on the rate at which you can climb the cable would be the lateral acceleration experienced by the climber and cargo.

          • by 91degrees (207121)
            You'll not get close to orbital speeds until you're close to the centre of mass. At 200km, you're barely going faster than an object on the ground.
            • by swillden (191260)

              Very good point. I stand corrected.

              Putting something into LEO with an elevator would probably require lifting it well beyond LEO to get something close to the right orbital velocity, then applying thrust to fix up the resulting eccentric orbit. It'd still be cheaper than lifting it from the ground into LEO... though it occurs to me that the reason it would be cheaper is that it would get its orbital velocity by taking energy from the elevator. That could be restored by lowering a mass from geostationary o

      • 1 km per day means the cargo will be highly irradiated by the Van Allen radiation belts.
        Quite unsuitable for human transport.

        • You might read my whole post before commenting, I quote (myself):

          Plus "climbers" are envisioned to come in multiple forms and be able to pass each other. You might have a "human transport climber" that ascends at 20km / h but is unable to hold more than a few people and crew and a cargo climber that is bigger but slower.

          Maybe I am a bit off on my numbers of height / speed but IANASEE (I am not a space elevator engineer) but it would appear the SEEs have done the number crunching already :)

  • Why not clean energy?

    http://energyfromthorium.com/2... [energyfromthorium.com]

    Oh well, I guess we'll just have to buy it from this guy:

    http://www.itheo.org/bill-gate... [itheo.org]

  • They've gotten themselves into autonomous cars, fiber optic internet, robotics, and Wi-Fi balloons.

    That's all great, but if I was shareholder I'd be worried about what their long-term vision for the company is. Sure, their R&D projects are a geek's wet dream, but they are unfocused. They appear to try and cover any and all emerging technologies, from wide variety of disparate sectors. Apple tries to focus on the consumer electronics sector. Google? I'm not quite sure what they are trying to be, and as an investor I'd be wary in investing in a company with such a schizophrenic view of its future.

    • The stuff you mentioned is VERY long term. But it sounds like you don't own stock; maybe some simple reasearch could guide you? What is the diffence between an Investor, and a Stock Trader? Hint: "use 'time' in your response."
  • I looked into doing these projects too..., but decided I was far too lazy to accomplish any of them. Instead, I'll start a ponzi scheme on kickstarter for a flying car, paid with bitcoin.

  • "...carbon nanotubes. But no one has manufactured a perfectly formed carbon nanotube strand longer than a meter..."

    Maybe some of those third world geniouses with toddler social skills should turn inward and ask, "why is only one meter their best effort?" I sure hate to see them return home with their H1B's "tucked under."
  • I cannot believe the summary. Thousands of Slashdotters here already knew that elevator cables need to be super strong and that carbon nanotubes are the only calculated material that can do it and that spinning long nanotubes is a technological problem.

    The Google research team did not discover these things - they're smart guys, they already knew this.

    So, venturing further into the story will be a waste of time. If Googlers did spend time on space elevators, then they probably did learn some new things. B

  • I made a working hover board for a school project years and years ago. i really, really dont understand why it is so hard for someone to come up with the same concept that I had. (and yes mine could hover over water.. )

Whenever a system becomes completely defined, some damn fool discovers something which either abolishes the system or expands it beyond recognition.

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