I first came across Google’s interest in Star Trek back in the summer of 2010. A company spokesman wanted to show me the firm’s rapidly improving visual search and speech-recognition technology. At the time, those features were available only on Android phones, and, back then, Android was getting shellacked by the iPhone. So when the spokesman told me that he regarded the latest Android devices as something like a combination of Star Trek’s tricorder and the USS Enterprise’s computer, I dismissed it as a gimmick to attract media attention for a struggling brand. Not that he was totally wrong—in 2010, asking your phone to search for something, rather than typing in your query, was pretty cool. It just wasn’t Star Trek-cool.
Since then, though, Star Trek has popped up again and again in my interviews with Googlers. Last year, for a piece in which I praised Google’s Voice Search for trouncing Apple’s Siri, I spoke to Scott Huffman, one of the engineering directors on Google’s search team. When I asked him how he pictured voice search evolving, he too invoked the Star Trek computer. “You would ask, ‘Hey Google, where should I have dinner?’ ” he told me. “And it might say, ‘Well, you seem to like Italian restaurants, so how about this one?’ ” A few weeks ago, I was chatting with Tamar Yehoshua, director of product management on Google’s search. “Is there a roadmap for how search will look a few years from now?” I asked her. “Our vision is the Star Trek computer,” she shot back with a smile. “You can talk to it—it understands you, and it can have a conversation with you.”
Still, I didn’t really put much stock in these references. After all, Google is very likely the nerdiest large company on earth; of course its employees like Star Trek. Then, in March, Amit Singhal, who heads Google’s search rankings team, gave a talk at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival—and Star Trek took center stage. Singhal told the crowd that the original series was one of his favorite all-time shows, and he longed to one day meet William Shatner, “as long as he doesn’t sell me a hotel room.” Then Singhal added: “The destiny of [Google’s search engine] is to become that Star Trek computer, and that’s what we are building.”