Google's Top Secret Research Lab Isn't So Top Secret

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While everyone buzzes about the mysterious Google building filled with robots featured in Monday's New York Times, Steven Levy at Wired is bragging about his business card collection. That building is supposedly home to the top secret Google X division. (Not to be confused with the very short-lived Google X homepage design that ripped off the look and feel of Apple's OSX.) Times tech reporters Claire Cain Miller and Nick Bilton stop short of hyperbole in describing the types of projects being built at Google X — everything from refrigerators that refill themselves to elevators that go to space — but they're careful to play up the secrecy angle:

These are just a few of the dreams being chased at Google X, the clandestine lab where Google is tackling a list of 100 shoot-for-the-stars ideas. In interviews, a dozen people discussed the list; some work at the lab or elsewhere at Google, and some have been briefed on the project. But none would speak for attribution because Google is so secretive about the effort that many employees do not even know the lab exists.

Enter Steven Levy, who's been blogging about Google all year to promote his latest book In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. Having covered the company since its late 1990s beginnings, the veteran tech reporter knows a lot about Google. And, protective of that turf, Levy is quick to debunk The Times scoop — or at least the tone of it:

Secretive, but not exactly top secret. While Google is very much keeping things under wraps in its long-term research division, there has been wiggle room on its title. I have three business cards from researchers in the division, and all boast the Google X connection. In fact, the "X" in the business card is dropped out, and you can see through the card. One of the cards, belonging to Sebastian Thrun (he of the self-driving car) is made of thin metal.

It's kind of a joke. When these guys give you a card, you say, "I thought that this doesn't offiically exist." And they laugh, or roll their eyes. In any case, considering this, I find it strange that The Times claims that many Googlers are totally in the dark about Google X.

Levy's blog post is a little bit of a buzzkill, and he inevitably sounds a little bitter for The Times's having followed a tip that he himself might've given away months ago. Back in June, Business Insider named Levy in reporting briefly on Sergey Brin taking on a new role running a special projects effort called "Google X." (They even posted pictures of the secret Google X handshake!) Following The Times piece, former TechCrunch staffer MG Siegler backs up Bilton and Cain Miller's scoop-getting in a post on his personal blog that splashes some CIA-style secrecy back into Google X myth. "I asked around, but couldn't get much," says Siegler. "Someone else told me it was the place that some of Google's best talent was going rather than leaving the company to go start their own thing or go to Facebook like everyone else."

Whether it's top secret or just secretive, we still want to know more about those space elevators. And the see-through, thin-metal business cards. Do they self-destruct when you blog about them?

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