Google is famous for its "20 percent time," whereby staffers are allowed to spend the equivalent of one workday a week on passion projects that they believe will benefit the company. The idea is that creativity and innovation happen when people are allowed to experiment. Things such as Gmail and Chromebooks have resulted, according to a Google spokesperson.
Whether the policy still exists has been debated over the last few years.
But on Thursday, Google announced that artificial intelligence researcher and senior software engineer Chris Shallue discovered two new planets — and it was born of a flex-time side venture. One day, it could even help discover alien life.
"I'm a Google AI researcher with an interest in space, and started this work as a 20 percent project," writes Shallue in a statement from Google. He read about the existence of vast quantities of planetary data NASA had collected via its Kepler spacecraft and telescope, which has taken a photo from its orbit every 30 minutes for the last four years, according to Google.
Shallue recognized the un-mined information as ripe for an AI experiment.
"Machine learning really shines in situations where there is so much data that humans can't search it for themselves," says Shallue in a NASA statement. (The Kepler dataset took two weeks to download and didn't fit on a desktop, according to a Reddit "ask me anything" with Shallue.)