Last Updated: May 1, 2008: 4:57 AM EDT
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Larry Page (pg. 2)

By Andy Serwer, managing editor

What are they doing?

Working on making cars automated. You can already see the technology going into some cars. Infiniti just released a car that will kick you back in if you are driving out of the lane, which is a large source of accidents. So you're saving lives, and the technology is not that costly. But the number of people willing to work on stuff like that is very, very, very small.

Why is that?

Honestly, I'm a little baffled. But my own experience within Google is that it's hard to get people to work on those kinds of things because of the personal risk they feel they're taking. Also, people don't have the right training. If you say you want to automate cars and save people's lives, the skills you need for that aren't taught in any particular discipline. I know - I was interested in working on automating cars when I was a Ph.D. student in 1995.

Is the problem that people are risk-averse?

That's part of the problem, but I think that can be overcome with education and environment and infrastructure. My experience is that when people are trying to do ambitious things, they're all worried about failing when they start. But all sorts of interesting things spin out that are of huge economic value. Also, in these kinds of projects, you get to work with the best people and have a very interesting time. They're not really taking a risk, but they feel like they are.

As a public company, you have an obligation to shareholders. How does that come into play when you start designating resources to speculative projects?

In practice that's not an issue. I've told the whole company repeatedly I want people to work on artificial intelligence - so we end up with five people working on it. Guess what? That's not a major expense. There's a reason we talk about 70/20/10, where 70% of our resources are spent in our core business and 10% end up in unrelated projects, like energy or whatever. [The other 20% goes to projects adjacent to the core business.] Actually, it's a struggle to get it to even be 10%. People might think we're wasting money or whatever. But that's where all our new stuff has come from.

Isn't this easier to do at a place like Google than, say, at older Fortune 500 companies?

Many leaders of big organizations, I think, don't believe that change is possible. But if you look at history, things do change, and if your business is static, you're likely to have issues. Look at the auto industry: It took the Japanese to convince people you can have a reliable car. Then they started pushing the product cycles shorter and shorter. Instead of making a car in five years, they made them in one year or two years. That's a big change.

And then there are things like Moore's Law [that the number of transistors on a chip will double about every two years]. People think Moore's Law is a description of what happened. But Moore's Law actually caused people to do the right thing. Everyone was organized about it - making things better quickly.

So if there were Moore's Laws applicable to other businesses or products, people would organize to fulfill that point?

Yes, yes. Different things get solved for different reasons. Obviously you're not going to get Moore's Law performance for cars - you're not just moving information around. With cars, you have physical constraints.

Do you have other examples where innovative leadership could move the needle?

I think there are a lot of areas. You can be a bit of a detective and ask, What are the industries where things haven't changed much in 50 years? We've been looking a little at geothermal power. And you start thinking about it, and you say, Well, a couple of miles under this spot or almost any other place in the world, it's pretty darn hot. How hard should it be to dig a really deep hole? We've been drilling for a long time, mostly for oil - and oil's expensive. If you want to move heat around, you need bigger holes. The technology just hasn't been developed for extracting heat. I imagine there's pretty good odds that's possible.

Solar thermal's another area we've been working on; the numbers there are just astounding. In Southern California or Nevada, on a day with an average amount of sun, you can generate 800 megawatts on one square mile. And 800 megawatts is actually a lot. A nuclear plant is about 2,000 megawatts.

The amount of land that's required to power the entire U.S. with electricity is something like 100 miles by 100 miles. So you say, "What do I need to do to generate that power?" You could buy solar cells. The problem is, at today's solar prices you'd need trillions of dollars to generate all the electricity in the U.S. Then you say, "Well, how much do mirrors cost?" And it turns out you can buy pieces of glass and a mirror and you can cover those areas for not that much money. Somehow the world is not doing a good job of making this stuff available. As a society, on the larger questions we have, we're not making reasonable progress.

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