Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt announced today that Google Ideas, the New York City-based web and policy think tank, is being transformed into a tech incubator named Jigsaw. Schmidt revealed the news in a post on Medium, saying the team will focus on using technology "to tackle the toughest geopolitical challenges, from countering violent extremism to thwarting online censorship to mitigating the threats associated with digital attacks." Jigsaw will be headed up by Jared Cohen, a former member of the US State Department's Policy Planning Staff who's run Google Ideas since its inception in 2010. Cohen will also remain an advisor to Schmidt.
Cohen's prominent involvement has fostered links between Google and the State Department, and activist Julian Assange once criticized Google Ideas for participating in what he called "regime change" activities around the world. Schmidt says the division has acted in the past as a unit of engineers and research scientists exploring "how technology might help the next five billion people coming online for the first time." Some of its interests include countering money laundering, organized crime, police brutality, human trafficking, and terrorism, Schmidt adds.
Jigsaw seems to be more a rebranding of Google Ideas
In that sense, Jigsaw seems to be more of a rebranding of Google Ideas than a substantial change of focus. Past Google Ideas initiatives have included Project Shield, a tool to help prevent distributed denial of service attacks on vulnerable websites in countries with oppressive regimes, and the Digital Attack Map, which uses data visualization to track cyberattacks across the globe. It's unclear what future projects Jigsaw will focus on, but they will likely stay aligned with Google Ideas' original aims.
A spokesperson for Alphabet tells The Verge Jigsaw will not remain under Google, which is run by Sundar Pichai, but will be part of Alphabet instead. However, it will not be a separate Alphabet unit like Nest, Fiber, or Calico.
"Why Jigsaw? For one thing, the new name acknowledges that the world is a complex puzzle of physical and digital challenges," Schmidt writes. "For another, it reflects our belief that collaborative problem-solving yields the best solutions. As a technology incubator, Jigsaw will be investing in and building technology to expand access to information for the world’s most vulnerable populations and to defend against the world’s most challenging security threats."
Update at 8:06PM ET, Tuesday, February 16th: Added comment from Alphabet.