Tag Archives: Googlers

Ask a Techspert: Why am I getting so many spam calls?

Editor’s Note: Do you ever feel like a fish out of water? Try being a tech novice and talking to an engineer at a place like Google. Ask a Techspert is a new series on the Keyword asking Googler experts to explain complicated technology for the rest of us. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but just enough to make you sound smart at a dinner party.

Growing up, I was taught to say “Schottenfels residence” when answering the phone. It was the polite way of doing things. When the phone rang, it was usually family, friends and, yes, the occasional telemarketer on the other side of the line. Then things changed. Personal calls moved to mobile phones, and the landline became the domain of robocalls. My cell was a sanctuary, free of the pesky automated dialers that plague the landlines of yore. Until recently.

Today, it feels like the only phone calls I get are spam calls. And I know I’m not alone. According to a recent Google survey, half of respondents received at least one spam call per day, and one third received two or more per day.

And people are answering those calls. More than one third of respondents worry that a call from an unknown number is a call about a loved one, and another third think it could be a call from a potential loved one, so they pick up. And almost everyone agrees: Spam calls are the worst. In fact, 75 percent of those surveyed think spam calls are more annoying than spam texts or emails.

So what’s the deal with spam calls? And how can we stop them from happening? For the latest edition of Ask a Techspert, I spoke to Paul Dunlop, the product manager for the Google Phone App, to better understand why, all of the sudden, spam calls are happening so frequently, and what tools, like Pixel’s Call Screen feature, you can use  to avoid the headache.

Why spam calls are more common lately

According to Paul, voice-over IP (VoIP) is the culprit. These are phone calls made using the web instead of a traditional telephone line, and today they're cheaper and easier than ever to use. “Using VoIP technology, spammers place phone calls over the Internet and imitate a different phone number,” Paul says. “It used to be that they had a fixed number, and you could block that number. Now with VoIP, spammers have the ability to imitate any phone number.” Paul says this became possible when companies, which wanted to call customers from call centers, made it so one general 1-800 number for a business showed up on caller IDs. So what started as a common-sense solution ended up becoming an easy loophole for spammers.

This is called spoofing, and there’s nothing in phone systems—the infrastructure of telephones—that can prevent spam callers from imitating numbers. “You can actually be spammed by your own phone number,” Paul says. “But the most common is neighborhood spam, using your area code and the first three digits of your phone number, which increases the likelihood you’ll answer.”

How Pixel can help you avoid picking up spam calls

A video explaining the Call Screen feature on Pixel phones

Enter Call Screen, a feature on Pixel phones that helps protect you from spam calls by giving you more information before you decide to answer. Before you have to pick up, Call Screen asks the caller to say why they’re calling and, with the help of the Google Assistant, translates the message into text so you can decide whether or not to answer. All of this happens “on device,” meaning it protects your privacy while it makes sure you get the message as fast as possible.

“Call Screen gives you that bit of protection from those spam calls, and helps you make sure you don’t miss those really important calls,” Paul explains. “It’s only one piece of the puzzle though.”

The future of fighting spam calls

But what about the problem of spam calls at large? Paul and other industry techsperts look to technology called STIR/SHAKEN to address that spoof phone number technology, which the FTC is in the process of approving. And, yes, they are acronyms: STIR for “Secure Telephone Identity Revisited” and SHAKEN for “Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs.”

This new technology allows cell phone networks to authenticate calls by validating that the number associated with each phone call is legitimate. You can then know that the caller is a real person using a real phone number.

According to our survey respondents, spam calls are the worst type of call you can get. With new advances in technology, however, the number two most annoying group of callers—exes —might just take the top spot.

A recipe for beating the record of most-calculated digits of pi

Editor’s note: Today, March 14, is Pi Day (3.14). Here at Google, we’re celebrating the day with a new milestone: A team at Google has broken the Guinness World RecordsTMtitle for most accurate value of pi.

Whether or not you realize it, pi is everywhere you look. It’s the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, so the next time you check your watch or see the turning wheels of a vehicle go by, you’re looking at pi. And since pi is an irrational number, there’s no end to how many of its digits can be calculated. You might know it as 3.14, but math and science pros are constantly working to calculate more and more digits of pi, so they can test supercomputers (and have a bit of healthy competition, too).

While I’ve been busy thinking about which flavor of pie I’m going to enjoy later today, Googler Emma Haruka Iwao has been busy using Google Compute Engine, powered by Google Cloud, to calculate the most accurate value of pi—ever. That’s 31,415,926,535,897 digits, to be exact. Emma used the power of the cloud for the task, making this the first time the cloud has been used for a pi calculation of this magnitude.

Here’s Emma’s recipe for what started out as a pie-in-the-sky idea to break a Guinness World Records title:

Step 1: Find inspiration for your calculation.

When Emma was 12 years old, she became fascinated with pi. “Pi seems simple—it starts with 3.14. When I was a kid, I downloaded a program to calculate pi on my computer,” she says. “At the time, the world record holders were Yasumasa Kanada and Daisuke Takahashi, who are Japanese, so it was really relatable for me growing up in Japan.”

Later on, when Emma was in college, one of her professors was Dr. Daisuke Takahashi, then the record holder for calculating the most accurate value of pi using a supercomputer. “When I told him I was going to start this project, he shared his advice and some technical strategies with me.”

Step 2: Combine your ingredients.

To calculate pi, Emma used an application called y-cruncher on 25 Google Cloud virtual machines. “The biggest challenge with pi is that it requires a lot of storage and memory to calculate,” Emma says. Her calculation required 170 terabytes of data to complete—that's roughly equivalent to the amount of data in the entire Library of Congress print collections.

Emma

Step 3: Bake for four months.

Emma’s calculation took the virtual machines about 121 days to complete. During that whole time, the Google Cloud infrastructure kept the servers going. If there’d been any failures or interruptions, it would’ve disrupted the calculation. When Emma checked to see if her end result was correct, she felt relieved when the number checked out. “I started to realize it was an exciting accomplishment for my team,” she says.

Step 4: Share a slice of your achievement.

Emma thinks there are a lot of mathematical problems out there to solve, and we’re just at the beginning of exploring how cloud computing can play a role. “When I was a kid, I didn’t have access to supercomputers. But even if you don’t work for Google, you can apply for various scholarships and programs to access computing resources,” she says. “I was very fortunate that there were Japanese world record holders that I could relate to. I’m really happy to be one of the few women in computer science holding the record, and I hope I can show more people who want to work in the industry what’s possible.”

At Google, Emma is a Cloud Developer Advocate, focused on high-performance computing and programming language communities. Her job is to work directly with developers, helping them to do more with the cloud and share information about how products work. And now, she’s also sharing her calculations: Google Cloud has published the computed digits entirely as disk snapshots, so they’re available to anyone who wants to access them. This means anyone can copy the snapshots, work on the results and use the computation resources in less than an hour. Without the cloud, the only way someone could access such a large dataset would be to ship physical hard drives. 

Today, though, Emma and her team are taking a moment to celebrate the new world record. And maybe a piece of pie, too. Emma’s favorite flavor? “I like apple pie—not too sweet.”

For the technical details on how Emma used Google Compute Engine to calculate pi, head over to the Google Cloud Platform blog.

Ask a Techspert: What is quantum computing?

Editor’s Note: Do you ever feel like a fish out of water? Try being a tech novice and talking to an engineer at a place like Google. Ask a Techspert is a new series on the Keyword asking Googler experts to explain complicated technology for the rest of us. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but just enough to make you sound smart at a dinner party.

Quantum computing sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. But it’s real, and scientists and engineers are working to make it a practical reality. Google engineers are creating chips the size of a quarter that could revolutionize the computers of tomorrow. But what is quantum computing, exactly?

The Keyword’s very first Techspert is Marissa Giustina, a research scientist and quantum electronics engineer in our Santa Barbara office. We asked her to explain how this emerging technology actually works.

What do we need to know about conventional computers when we think about quantum computers?

At a first glance, “information” seems like an abstract concept. Sure, information can be stored by writing and drawing—humans figured that out a long time ago. Still, there doesn’t seem to be anything physically tangible about the process of thinking.

Enter the personal computer. It’s a machine—a purely physical object—that manipulates information. So how does it do that, if it’s a physical machine and information is abstract? Well, information is actually physical. Computers store and process rich, detailed information by breaking it down. At a low level, a computer represents information as a series of “bits.” Each bit can take a value of either [0] or [1], and physically, these bits are tiny electrical switches that can be either open [0] or closed [1]. Emails, photos and videos on YouTube are all represented by long sequences of bits—long rows of tiny electrical switches inside a computer.

The computer “computes” by manipulating those bits, like changing between [0] and [1] (opening or closing a switch), or checking whether two bits have equal or opposite values and setting another bit accordingly. These bit-level manipulations are the basis of even the fanciest computer programs.

Ones and zeros, like "The Matrix." Got it. So then what is a quantum computer?

A quantum computer is a machine that stores and manipulates information as quantum bits, or “qubits,” instead of the “classical” bits we were talking about before. Quantum bits are good at storing and manipulating a different kind of information than classical bits, since they are governed by rules of quantum mechanics—the same rules that govern the behavior of atoms and molecules.

What’s the difference between a bit and a qubit?

This is where it gets more complicated. Remember that a classical bit is just a switch: it has only two possible configurations: [open] or [closed]. A qubit’s configuration has a lot more possibilities. Physicists often think of a qubit like a little globe, with [0] at the north pole and [1] at the south pole, and the qubit’s configuration is represented by a point on the globe. In manipulating the qubit, we can send any point on the globe to any other point on the globe.

At first, it sounds like a qubit can hold way more information than a regular bit. But there’s a catch: the “rules” of quantum mechanics restrict what kinds of information we can get out of a qubit. If we want to know the configuration of a classical bit, we just look at it, and we see that the switch is either open [0] or closed [1]. If we want to know the configuration of a qubit, we measure it, but the only possible measurement outcomes are [0] (north pole) or [1] (south pole). A qubit that was situated on the equator will measure as [0] 50 percent of the time and [1] the other 50 percent of the time. That means we have to repeat measurements many times in order to learn about a qubit’s actual configuration.

Quantum computing

Researcher Marissa Giustina (right) in the Google AI Quantum hardware lab shares quantum computing hardware with Google executives. On the left, you can see the coldest part of a cryostat and some quantum hardware mounted to the bottom.

So if qubits are so tricky to measure, how can you build a quantum computer?

Well, you’re right—it’s complicated! My main focus at Google, together with my teammates, is to figure out how to build a quantum computer and how we can use it. Years of research have given us a pretty good idea of how to build and control a few quantum bits, but the process of scaling up to a full quantum processor is not just “copy-paste.” We’re also continuing to investigate possible uses of quantum computers, where there’s a lot that's unknown. It’s wrong to think of a quantum computer as a more powerful version of your regular computer. Instead, each is a machine that’s good at certain—and different—kinds of tasks. If you’re going to your local grocery store, you’d take a car or walk, but you wouldn’t take a plane or a spaceship.

What does a quantum computer look like?

In our hardware at Google, the qubits are resonant electrical circuits made of patterned aluminum on a silicon chip. In our qubits, electricity sloshes around the circuit at a lower or higher energy to encode the quantum version of [0] and [1]. We use aluminum because at very low temperatures aluminum becomes superconducting, which means it experiences no electrical loss. By “very low temperatures” I mean that we operate our quantum processors in a special refrigerator called a cryostat, which cools the chips to below 50 millikelvin—significantly colder than outer space!

When you see pictures of “a quantum computer,” usually you notice the cryostat—which is bigger than a person. But that’s just the shell, providing the proper environment for the processor to function. The quantum processor itself is a silicon chip installed in the cryostat, and is closer to the size of a coin. The qubits are small, roughly 0.1 mm across, but not that small—you can see them with the naked eye (though it’s easier with a magnifying glass or microscope).

Do you know what we would use a quantum computer for?

As I mentioned, a quantum computer is a novel kind of computing machine—not a speedier or beefier version of your laptop. However, quantum computers, with their fundamentally different way of encoding and manipulating information, promise to be good at some problems that would choke regular computers. One example is the simulation of chemical reactions.

Suppose a chemist wants to develop a material—for example a better fertilizer, an anti-corrosion coating, or an efficient solar cell. Even if the chemist knows the structure of a new molecule they’re developing, they won’t know how that molecule behaves in the real world until they make it and test it. This makes materials research laborious and expensive. It would be much more efficient if researchers could simulate the behavior of a new molecule before synthesizing it in the lab. However, every atom in a molecule is affected by every other atom, which means that each time you add an atom to a molecule, there are twice as many parameters to include in the simulation. As a result, chemistry simulation becomes impossible for a classical computer, even for relatively small molecules. The quantum computer, in contrast, is based in the same physics that governs the molecule’s behavior. I’m optimistic that quantum computers could change the way we do research on materials.

Wow, that’s exciting. Where can I learn more about this?

I’m so glad you asked! My teammates and I are working on a series of videos to explain the basics of our work in more detail—you can find them below.

What is a quantum computer?

Daraiha Greene wants everyone to see themselves in tech

Tech companies like Google create products for the whole world. But when employees don’t reflect the diversity of the global population their products serve, that lack of diversity can be discouraging for people who don’t look like the stereotype of a tech worker.

Googlers like Daraiha Greene are pushing for more diverse representation of people who work in tech, whether it’s in the media, in the business world or at events across the country. That way, the next generation will be inspired to pursue tech careers, no matter their race, gender or background. For our latest She Word, Greene explains how “if you can see it, you can be it.”

How do you describe your job at a dinner party?

I lead strategic partnerships for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team. Our biggest mandate is to make sure Google is showing up authentically, both internally and externally, so everyone can have a seat at the tech table.

You play a big role with CS in Media, which advocates for more diverse representation of computer scientists in pop culture. Why do you think representation is so important, especially for women and people of color?

When I was growing up, I was really good at math and science, but I never saw a Black woman doing computer science or technology, or even working in a tech space. Not that they didn’t exist, but I just wasn’t exposed to it. If you are even remotely interested in engineering and computer science, and you constantly see the same image portrayed over and over again, you’re going to start to think that it’s not for you.

I think the media is such a great tool because it reaches so many different people at once. I think it’s important to start there so we can change the culture and perception around tech in a broader, faster way. If you can see it, you can be it.

What projects are you working on with CS in Media right now?

We’re advising and funding a web series called GODCOMPLX. We wrapped the first season already, but now we’re working on the second season. It’s basically the tech version of “Friends,” but with a more diverse ensemble cast. We show how they pursue their careers in tech and computer science, but more importantly, we show them as well-rounded people first.

I also started the CS+X series at Google, where we highlight the intersections between computer science and other fields like music, dance, fashion, or sports. We show kids different careers behind the scenes that have to do with technology and computer science in a field where they already see themselves reflected, where they already feel like they could belong.

You also manage the Digital Coaches program. What’s the mission of that team?

We want to help small and medium business owners and entrepreneurs of color feel like they can also compete in the digital economy. We want to provide them with the tools and resources Google has to help them get there, so that no one feels left behind. I think it’s important to make sure that we have more representation of people, whether it’s women or people of color, starting their own businesses and leveraging companies like Google to succeed.

What advice do you have for women starting out in their careers?

Be open to change. When I was 13, I wanted to be an obstetrician, because I love babies. I was absolutely certain this was going to be my career path. When I got to college, I was majoring in biochemistry, shadowing doctors and going to the NICU, and every time I would see sick babies, I would cry. I finally realized that this was not for me, and I needed to find a new career path. And now that I look back, I’m so glad I was open to change. I never envisioned myself at a tech company like Google, but it happened because I was open and I was flexible.

Daraiha Greene

What’s one habit that makes you successful?

I follow through. I don’t just think about my long-term goals, or what I want to accomplish in shorter periods of time. I create a list, and then take it a step further to write down the tactics I need to implement, in order to achieve each goal. Once I have a clear understanding of the habits I need to unlearn and the obstacles that prevent me from moving forward,  it’s easier to map out my plan and succeed.

What are you passionate about outside of work?

Giving back and inspiring the next generation. My parents got divorced when I was 9, and I experienced a phase of sadness and anxiety. Dancing and acting really helped me get through that time in my life. Dancing was a way to relieve stress and express myself, but acting was a way to not be myself, because I could take on another character and have that escape. I still act and dance to this day.

I started a nonprofit, Rays of Sunlight, because I wanted to create a safe space for kids to cope with life’s challenges through creative expression. We’ll focus on mindfulness, social learning, personal growth, empathy, and leadership. I’m excited to provide just a little more light for our youth, starting July 2019 in Los Angeles.

To help make Google more inclusive, I had to understand my journey

I was born to a black father and a white mother in 1967, and at that time, it was illegal for them to get married. That changed two months after I was born, in June of that year, courtesy of the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Loving v. Virginia.

Throughout my life, from a childhood in Texas to a career in computer science, I have faced discrimination in ways both seen and unseen. Now at Google, I strive to make my team, and the products we create, inclusive and welcoming to everyone. But before my journey would lead me to this perspective, I first needed to reconcile with my past.

Camie Hackson childhood

By 1969, two years after Loving v. Virginia, my parents felt they could get married without fear of arrest. I attended the ceremony.

What most folks would understand as racism, I only knew as life in Texas. I knew that my mother was less likely than my father to be pulled over by the police, and that my white classmate’s parents wouldn’t allow him to take me to the freshman dance. But I never fully considered the external factors that made this a reality. For me, it was simple: Society was a system with rules, and those rules didn’t work for me the way they did for everyone else.

I carried this attitude with me to college. Berkeley was a considerably more diverse space than San Antonio, but as I looked around my computer science classes, I didn’t see much of anyone who looked like me. But if Texas had taught me anything, it was that there was very little time for me to feel sorry for myself. In the face of adversity, you work harder. And that’s what I did. I put my head down and focused all of my energies on studying, soaking up as much knowledge as I could.

Camie Hackson college

Growing up, managing my hair was always an ordeal, and something my mother had never encountered before. In 1988, I met a hairstylist in Berkeley who taught me how to manage it, and they submitted this style to an industry magazine.

This perseverance landed me in Silicon Valley, where I began my career as a software engineer. Despite my best efforts to work hard and advance, I began noticing a trend. I kept receiving feedback that I wasn’t technical enough. Of course, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I was if that were actually true. In reality, it was never about being “technical enough.” It was a matter of looking technical enough. Technical people looked like the dominant culture in the industry, and that certainly wasn’t a black woman.

But I didn’t complain. Instead, I took on technical tasks that typically would be assigned to my direct reports. I started wearing my glasses, and I took off my jewelry. I performed a version of myself that reflected those around me. I did whatever I could to not only look the part, but prove it in ways not required of my peers. I dedicated as much time to acting my role as I did executing it.

This wasn't just my problem. It was a societal issue.

After 24 years in the industry, I rose to the ranks of engineering director at Google in 2012. Beyond my technical achievements, I became known for putting together great teams. My manager at that time asked me to lead our team’s Diversity and Inclusion efforts. I thought I was totally ignorant about the subject—but I quickly learned the challenges I faced weren’t just specific to my experience.

As I began to educate myself, I and many others were being introduced to the demographics of the tech industry for the first time. I was aware of the fact that I was usually the only minority in my room, but not until that point did I realize that it was like this in nearly every room. I began talking to the people around me, listening to their stories. Years of accepting my narrative as uniquely my own had proven false. This wasn’t just my problem, it was a societal issue. There were many others in my position, and I made it a priority to help them navigate our collective reality.

Camie Hackson

Since then, my work in Diversity and Inclusion at Google has transformed considerably. What began as a push to teach minorities how to survive in tech has moved towards a push for a radical shift in culture. In my career, I needed those “survival” skills. I am a black woman in tech; I wouldn’t be here without the skills I have honed over the years. But today, we want more than survival in the workplace—we want people to thrive.

I’m part of the Geo group at Google, where my team works on products like Google Maps Platform and Earth Engine. We create tools for everyone, and in order to do this effectively, it is imperative that we have a team that reflects that diversity. But if a diverse team is spending half their efforts convincing others that they belong, what’s the point? Change begins at the top, and so that’s where I’ve focused my attention.

Because leadership carries an outsized impact on culture, we’ve trained our managers on not only the importance of diversity but provided them with the tools to foster an inclusive workplace. We tasked them with pushing their teams to bring their stories to work and share them with colleagues. By doing so, we can foster a culture of understanding people for who they are and not who they feel they need to be.  And so far, I’m proud to say that it’s working.

I’m hopeful for the future, because of how far we’ve come. This journey is not simply my own, but a reality for many. Those who came before me have had to deal with it, and I know my daughters will too. But we can and will be better. Our journey has shown us that.

Living the “multidream” by blending coding with a rap career

Editor’s note: Passion Projects is a new Keyword series highlighting Googlers with unexpected interests outside the office.

At Google’s offices in Los Angeles, Brandon Tory spends his days working in artificial intelligence, training computer models to better understand how humans use language—why we use certain words, or describe things in a particular way. Once he leaves the office, he’s crafting language in a different style: by writing and recording hip-hop music. Through his two passions, Tory hopes to spread the word to the next generation that you don’t have to choose between the things you love—and that art and science have more in common than you think.

When he was 13 years old, Tory saw movies like “Good Will Hunting,” “The Matrix” and “Hackers” and was inspired to get into math and computer science. “I never wanted to be a hacker in the criminal sense, but in the sense of really understanding computer systems,” he says. Growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts and experiencing homelessness as a teenager, he got support from his church and also went dumpster diving for parts to build his first computer, which he spray-painted black. He recalls spending 12 to 14 hours a day during his teenage years on online forums, learning more about computers and writing his own code in C, Assembly and Python.

But by high school, he kept his love of technology to himself. “At the time, coding wasn’t cool. None of my friends knew I was into coding,” he says, though he did turn in 200 printed pages of code for a science project. During those years, he discovered his passion for music. “I started to fall in love with hip-hop, and I related to the stories of a lot of rappers and artists just because of where I came from,” he says.

Tory studied electrical engineering in college, but decided on a different path by the time he graduated. “I think I went into the studio one time and heard myself, and it was probably not very good, but in my opinion it was amazing, and I said, ‘I’m packing up everything, I’m moving to Atlanta and I’m going to try to break into the music industry. I want to be a star,’” he says. He bought a $1200 van and moved to Atlanta to try to make it.

After a few years of striving in Atlanta, Tory moved to Los Angeles, where he won a national songwriting competition, got to work with the producer Timbaland and started hosting packed parties. But even still, he didn’t have a hit song, so he revived his interest in tech by working as a software engineer. He learned that coding and music share one major trait in common: the ability for people all over the world to collaborate on one project, and the need for everyone to learn from each other in order to maximize their creativity. .

At first, he kept his worlds separate, not telling family, fans, or coworkers about his double life. But around the time he started at Google this September, he decided to go public with his story, which has since been covered by media outlets across the country. Now, by being more open about his two passions in life, he hopes to inspire the next generation to pursue all their interests, and understand how seemingly different cultures can positively impact one another.

"Seriously" by Brandon Tory

When he’s not in the office, Tory is working on an album, which combines rap with guitar music and elements of indie pop. (He credits both Jay Z and Maroon 5 as influences on his work.) He’s also planning his fourth annual event in Los Angeles that combines his interests in tech and music, and is working on a television script about an MIT dropout who struggles to make it in Hollywood.

Tory now views his ambitions in software and music as two parts of one whole, or as he calls it, a “multidream.” “In computers, we have multi-threading, where we’re able to do multiple tasks and it seems like it’s happening invisibly,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as someone who has two careers. I consider myself one person from a diverse background who’s really enjoying learning and growing in two things that I love.”

These three Googlers would like to thank the Academy

Chances are, you’ve seen the work of Paul Debevec, Xueming Yu and Wan-Chun Alex Ma on the big screen—but you probably don’t know it. And that’s by design. Just this weekend, these Googlers took home an Academy Award for their face-digitizing technology, which has changed the way movies and video games use visual effects. And their goal is often to make sure you can just enjoy the characters, without thinking of them as computer-generated effects at all.

The three, alongside their former colleague Timothy Hawkins, won Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards for their work at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, where they worked before heading to Google in 2016. (Debevec remains an adjunct professor there.) Along with a larger team, they created the Light Stage and its accompanying software, which capture 3D models of an actor’s face to be used for visual effects.

Zoe Saldana filming Avatar

Actress Zoe Saldana is scanned in 2006 in Light Stage 5 at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies for her character Neytiri  in "Avatar"


Here’s how it works, in a nutshell: An actor performs scenes inside a dome, which features thousands of lights that hit his or her face at different angles. Multiple cameras capture different poses, and software converts the footage into a 3D model. Visual effects artists can use that model to create characters that can look like anything, from fantastical characters to realistic recreations.

Avatar facial scans

The 3D model the team scanned of Stephen Lang's face for his photoreal digital stunt double as Col. Miles Quaritch in "Avatar"

The first movie they used this facial scanning technology for was 2009’s “Avatar,” performing the first facial scans of Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in 2006. Among many other movies, the team also worked on 2014's “Maleficent,” which included creating a digital double of Angelina Jolie's character, scanned in her full Disney-villain makeup.

Just prior to heading to Google, they worked on “Blade Runner 2049,” which took home the Oscar for Best Visual Effects last year and brought back the character Rachael from the original “Blade Runner” movie. The new Rachael was constructed with facial features from the original actress, Sean Young, and another actress, Loren Peta, to make the character appear to be the same age she was in the first film.

Nowadays, Debevec, Yu and Ma are applying the technology they developed for the film industry to the fields of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). “We try to bring our knowledge and background to try to make better Google products,” Ma says. “We’re working on improving the realism of VR and AR experiences.”

One of their projects involves a new Light Stage that can capture 3-D models of both faces and bodies in motion, to create more realistic visual effects on screen, whether that screen is at a movie theater or on your smartphone. “We’re trying to make it so your cell phone has the same digital effects pipeline that movie studios employ scores of artists to do,” Debevec says. “It blows me away what we’re even trying to do, not to mention we’re having some success with it.”

Ma, Hawkins, Yu and Debevec on stage at the Academy Sci-Tech Awards.

Ma, Hawkins, Yu and Debevec on stage at the Academy Sci-Tech Awards.

They picked up their Academy Awards, which come in the form of certificates emblazoned with the gold Oscar logo, at a scientific and technical ceremony two weeks before the televised Oscars. One of the final films the team worked on, “Ready Player One,” is nominated for the Best Visual Effects Oscar this year, and the team says they’re especially happy to help others take home statuettes. Google also partners with the Academy Software Foundation, which helps the movie industry use open-source software more effectively.

Debevec gives the acceptance speech at the Scientific and Technical Academy Awards.

During the Scientific and Technical Awards presentation, the three brought fellow Googlers who work on Augmented Perception and Google Cloud to share a table with them and celebrate. They accepted their prize after an introduction from actor David Oyelowo, who hosted the ceremony. As for “Ready Player One?” We’ll have to wait until the Oscars ceremony on February 24 to find out.

An Olympian-turned-Googler trains the next generation of figure skaters

Editor’s note: Passion Projects is a new Keyword series highlighting Googlers with unexpected interests outside the office.

On Saturday, Timothy Goebel received one of the biggest honors of his life. In an arena full of fans in Detroit, as his family, former teammates, and former coaches cheered him on, he stood on the ice and was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, alongside two others. “I am truly humbled,” Goebel says. “This weekend's events are some of the most cherished from my athletic career."

The moment was a major milestone for Goebel, though he doesn’t skate much these days. Instead of spending his days on the ice, he spends them at Google’s New York City office—and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

During his figure skating career, Goebel earned the nickname “Quad King” because of his impressive quadruple jumps. In 2002, he took home the bronze for Team USA at the Salt Lake City Olympics, and then retired four years later.

Timothy Goebel induction

Goebel's Hall of Fame induction, as seen on the arena's Jumbotron. 

Having proven himself on the ice, Goebel knew he wanted to get back to what he calls the “civilian” world. “I knew that I wasn’t going to skate and perform all my life,” he says. “As an athlete, I had accomplished what I wanted to do.”

So he studied math, a subject he has loved since he was a child. Goebel says his parents always made sure academics were a priority, even when his skating career took off, so the transition off the ice wasn’t overwhelming. After several years in the analytics field, he became a Googler, and that career move was a surprise for him.

“When I retired as an athlete, I never in a million years expected to be working at Google,” he says. Initially, he thought he’d use his math skills in the finance world, but wound up applying his degree to marketing analytics. Now, when outside partners want to use Google’s data for their analytics, they turn to Goebel.

Timothy Goebel

Goebel beside the official poster for his Hall of Fame induction.

Heading from the Olympics to Google actually isn’t uncommon. In fact, there are at least a dozen Olympians currently working at Google, with backgrounds in sports from figure skating to fencing to swimming. “The things that make you successful as an athlete at that level are the things you need to be successful at Google,” Goebel says. “You have to be very self-disciplined, very driven and self-reliant to figure things out on your own without a set plan.”

These days, Goebel serves on committees for U.S. Figure Skating, but has personally hung up his skates for good. “It’s not like riding a bike. It’s something that you really have to keep up with,” he says, with a laugh. “If I would go back now and try to do triple jumps, it would not go so well.”

Instead of perfecting his jumps, he’s now focused on training the next generation of skaters. He’s on the advisory board for Figure Skating in Harlem, an organization in New York that uses ice skating to foster academic success. Girls who participate in the program pair skating lessons with tutoring and academic enrichment, and they have impressive graduation and college placement rates.

“The success metrics are through the roof,” Goebel says, speaking like a true analytics pro. “It’s a really cool program and I’m really proud to be part of it.”

Later in 2019, Goebel will receive an honor for his charity work at Figure Skating in Harlem’s annual gala. So that means this year, he’ll be recognized twice: once for his past Olympic triumphs, and once for his current work with future “quad queens”—or, perhaps, future Googlers like him.

An Olympian-turned-Googler trains the next generation of figure skaters

Editor’s note: Passion Projects is a new Keyword series highlighting Googlers with unexpected interests outside the office.

On Saturday, Timothy Goebel received one of the biggest honors of his life. In an arena full of fans in Detroit, as his family, former teammates, and former coaches cheered him on, he stood on the ice and was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, alongside two others. “I am truly humbled,” Goebel says. “This weekend's events are some of the most cherished from my athletic career."

The moment was a major milestone for Goebel, though he doesn’t skate much these days. Instead of spending his days on the ice, he spends them at Google’s New York City office—and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

During his figure skating career, Goebel earned the nickname “Quad King” because of his impressive quadruple jumps. In 2002, he took home the bronze for Team USA at the Salt Lake City Olympics, and then retired four years later.

Timothy Goebel induction

Goebel's Hall of Fame induction, as seen on the arena's Jumbotron. 

Having proven himself on the ice, Goebel knew he wanted to get back to what he calls the “civilian” world. “I knew that I wasn’t going to skate and perform all my life,” he says. “As an athlete, I had accomplished what I wanted to do.”

So he studied math, a subject he has loved since he was a child. Goebel says his parents always made sure academics were a priority, even when his skating career took off, so the transition off the ice wasn’t overwhelming. After several years in the analytics field, he became a Googler, and that career move was a surprise for him.

“When I retired as an athlete, I never in a million years expected to be working at Google,” he says. Initially, he thought he’d use his math skills in the finance world, but wound up applying his degree to marketing analytics. Now, when outside partners want to use Google’s data for their analytics, they turn to Goebel.

Timothy Goebel

Goebel beside the official poster for his Hall of Fame induction.

Heading from the Olympics to Google actually isn’t uncommon. In fact, there are at least a dozen Olympians currently working at Google, with backgrounds in sports from figure skating to fencing to swimming. “The things that make you successful as an athlete at that level are the things you need to be successful at Google,” Goebel says. “You have to be very self-disciplined, very driven and self-reliant to figure things out on your own without a set plan.”

These days, Goebel serves on committees for U.S. Figure Skating, but has personally hung up his skates for good. “It’s not like riding a bike. It’s something that you really have to keep up with,” he says, with a laugh. “If I would go back now and try to do triple jumps, it would not go so well.”

Instead of perfecting his jumps, he’s now focused on training the next generation of skaters. He’s on the advisory board for Figure Skating in Harlem, an organization in New York that uses ice skating to foster academic success. Girls who participate in the program pair skating lessons with tutoring and academic enrichment, and they have impressive graduation and college placement rates.

“The success metrics are through the roof,” Goebel says, speaking like a true analytics pro. “It’s a really cool program and I’m really proud to be part of it.”

Later in 2019, Goebel will receive an honor for his charity work at Figure Skating in Harlem’s annual gala. So that means this year, he’ll be recognized twice: once for his past Olympic triumphs, and once for his current work with future “quad queens”—or, perhaps, future Googlers like him.

Engineers are girls: the Googler behind “Ara the Star Engineer”

Editor’s note: Today, on International Day of the Girl, we’re sharing the story of Komal Singh, a Googler who was inspired by her own young daughter to write a children’s book focused on engineering, called “Ara the Star Engineer.”

Elisabeth: Tell us about what you do at Google.

Komal: I’m a program manager on the Ads Infrastructure team, based out of Waterloo, Canada. I act as the glue between various engineering teams to ensure we’re designing and building systems cohesively for the world.

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Komal and her daughter, Araiya

What inspired you to write “Ara the Star Engineer?”

One day I was working from home, and my daughter was with me while I was on a video call. She asked me about the various people on the call, so I pointed at the screen and said, “That’s Alex, that’s Kurt, that’s Eric, that’s Mike.” She responded, “Oh, engineers are boys.” I was shocked (and really bummed) by her reaction, so that same day, I wrote the first proposal for the book.

Without giving away too much, what’s the story about? 

Ara is a six-year-old girl who wants to count all the stars in the sky but doesn’t know how. She has a sidekick droid named DeeDee, and they go to DeeDee’s birth land, the Innovation Plex. There, they meet real life female engineers from Google, all from diverse backgrounds (in the book, we call them sheroes). In the end, they learn about an algorithm of success: courage, creativity, coding and collaboration.

I love Ara already. Is there a story behind her name?

It’s a palindrome, just like her favorite expression, “aha!” It was also inspired by Ada Lovelace (considered to be the mother of computing) and my own daughter’s name, Araiya.


Had you ever dabbled in children’s books before?

It was totally new to me. The original script took me about two months (and then I iterated with the sheroes for another couple of months) but it’s very different now. In an early version, there was an alchemist who gave Ara four stones that represented the four c’s: code, courage, creativity and collaboration. But we realized that was passive, we wanted Ara to have a more active role and discover those things on her own.

Why is this story important?

Women make up half of the world’s population but only 15-20 percent of women are in the tech workforce. If we don’t have representation across the board, we’re not going to solve problems or design products for the world. Girls are naturally technically minded and good problem solvers, but we don’t encourage them in that direction because of our implicit biases. I want this book to propel girls in the direction of exploring coding and engineering—maybe the young girls who read this book will be the next generation of innovators and inventors!

The book features prominent Googlers—what was their reaction to this idea?

Marian Croak, Diane Tang, Kripa Krishnan and Parisa Tabriz are all well-known in their fields, and it was important for me to show leaders of diverse backgrounds. When I sent the women the proposal, two replied back within an hour. They wanted to be a part of a project inspiring girls in tech.

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The sheroes

While writing the book, did you ever question yourself or lose your nerve to do this?

There were many times when I almost gave up. I was pregnant with my second child when I was writing the book, had to jump through many hoops to get this book done, and did it all as first time writer. When I felt like giving up, my sister-in-law said, “You’re a techie, a mother and a person of color—if you don’t write this book, who else would?” It reminded me that I had to find the courage to live the message of the book I was writing.

Do you think the book can have an impact on adults, too?

A lot of people who helped me with "beta user testing" of the book—my husband, friends and publishing team said they learned about coding from it. Though the book is technically geared toward 5 to 9 year olds, I think could actually be for ages 5 to 99. It has an upbeat message of chasing your dreams, taking risks, and collaborating with people—we can apply all of that to our day-to-day lives.

What were your favorite books as a kid?

My all-time favorites are “The Alchemist,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “The Little Prince.” And I think they all subconsciously inspired Ara’s journey in some way.

What’s next for you and Ara?

Right now, I just want to soak in everything that’s happening with the book. If I were to write another one, I’d love to explain concepts—like computational numbers and artificial intelligence— to kids. Anyone want to collaborate on that? :)