Google’s X factor: “Captain of Moonshots” describes secret lab

Astro Teller Google

History shows that scientific breakthroughs often occur during wartime when countries approach hard problems with a rare mix of urgency and unfettered creativity. War, for instance, has often led to rapid advances in cartography, cryptography and physics. But is it possible to replicate this type of wartime-style problem solving in times of peace?

Google thinks so and claims that its hush-hush ideas lab known as Google X is designed to do just this. Speaking at Austin’s SXSW festival Tuesday, Google’s Astro Teller, the man who holds the title “Captain of Moonshots” shared some details about how the lab thinks and works.

According to Teller, who is the grandson of H-bomb inventor Edward Teller, Google X believes that the process for solving huge and difficult problems is unlike that for solving incremental ones. “Moonshot thinking,” he said, requires overcoming society’s prescriptions for caution and embracing both audacious ideas and failures.

“You have to have a group of people dedicated to throwing almost everything away,” Teller said.

To this end, Google X generates hundreds of ideas a year and even develops many of them into prototypes or white papers. Ultimately, though, the lab selects only one or a two a year to turn into a reality — Google’s driverless cars and computer glasses are among those that have been selected. Another recent product is the blue dot on Google Maps that reveals where you are inside a building.

Google X’s culture of creativity is about exploring any ideas but also getting the successful ideas out of the lab before they’re done. Teller said this ensures that commercialization doesn’t undercut the “Peter Panishness” of the place.

So what’s next from Google X? Teller said the lab expected to announce another discovery in the coming month but refuted reports that Google is building some type of space elevator.

Overall, Teller’s talk was an inspiring testament to the power of thinking big and what can happen when people explore without fear of failure. But it also had some of the drive-by ephemera of a TED talk — profound for a second and then forgotten the next day.

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