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

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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.

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

  1. Liddell

    It seems inevitable that when a successfully innovative company achieves financial grandeur, it fails to understand how it got there, how to innovate. In the GOOG world, splattering the tech world with irrelevant innovations seems like an attempt to claim tech mind share. Trouble is that is innovation and disruption doesn’t work that way. Within the malevolent empire of any monopoly such as Google, there might be an iconoclast … my advice would be to leave … fast.

    Watch the guys with Google polo shirts, with Microsoft backpacks, listen to their rhetoric and observe the sycophancy of well-paid stars within what have become utilities.

    The tech world moves on at a pace .. thankfully!

  2. heenan73

    It must be demoralizing to work on amazing new ideas, knowing that Google may just drop them without warning later, as it has with so many projects in the past. Even successful ones. Even a chance that Google might sell on an unwanted miracle of technology to another developer would be some support. But they never do.

    Moonshots is an appropriate title – most get to orbit, but not to land. Just like most Apollo astronauts.

    Mind you, a company that can’t let me set the default news search option as ‘Latest First’ won’t win many prizes for innovation. I suspect that “Google X” looks exactly like Facebook – the ‘wartime spirit’ is fuelling an urge to throw away all that’s good about Google, until all that’s left is a Facebook Facsimile.

    Sad days for Google, and Google users.