From IEEE Spectrum:
Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at X, on the Future of AI, Robots, and Coffeemakers
Astro Teller has an unusual way of starting a new project: He tries to kill it.
Teller is the head of X, formerly called Google X, the advanced technology lab of Alphabet. At X’s headquarters not far from the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif., Teller leads a group of engineers, inventors, and designers devoted to futuristic “moonshot” projects like self-driving cars, delivery drones, and Internet-beaming balloons.
To turn their wild ideas into reality, Teller and his team have developed a unique approach. It starts with trying to prove that whatever it is that you’re trying to do can’t be done—in other words, trying to kill your own idea. As Teller explains, “Instead of saying, ‘What’s most fun to do about this or what’s easiest to do first?’ we say, ‘What is the most likely reason this project won’t make it?’ ”
The ideas that survive get additional rounds of scrutiny, and only a tiny fraction eventually becomes official projects; the proposals that are found to have an Achilles’ heel are discarded, and Xers quickly move on to their next idea. It’s all part of Teller’s plan to “systematize innovation” and turn X into an assembly line of moonshots.
The moonshots that X has pursued since its founding six years ago are a varied bunch. While some were quite successful, such as Google Brain, which led to AI technologies now used in a number of Google products, others faced backlash, as was the case, most notably, with Google Glass. With Teller at the helm—his official title is “Captain of Moonshots”—X sees itself playing a key role in shaping the future of its parent company.
“If Alphabet wants to continue to grow, it needs to have one or more mechanisms for creating new problems to have,” Teller says, adding, “That’s X’s mission . . . our product is producing new Alphabet entities.”
To learn more about how they approach things at X, and get an update on its current projects, IEEE Spectrum senior editor Erico Guizzo spoke with Teller at Google’s office in New York City. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Astro Teller on . . .
- His Grandfather’s Thermonuclear Spacecraft
- Dreaming Up Moonshots
- A Database of Failures
- Sergey’s Batcave
- “Our Product Is Producing New Alphabet Entities”
- AI and the Coffeemaker of the Future
- Robots Are Coming to the Home, but Don’t Expect Rosie
- Robotics Group at X: What Are They Up to?
- Personal Robotics Is Not a Moonshot
- Self-Driving Cars Are Graduating
- Delivery Drones and Internet Balloons
- X Is Hiring
Edward Teller, wrote an article for Spectrum
in 1973 on potential non-military applications of thermonuclear power.
One of his ideas was using it for spacecraft propulsion. If the
spacecraft could be accelerated to one-thousandth the speed of light, he
wrote, “We could get to Mars in a week; the round trip would be two
weeks.” So in the article he basically starts by looking at a technology
and then envisions a revolutionary application for it. How does that
compare to how X comes up with its moonshots and goes about turning them
Astro Teller: I’m not sure that Edward would have agreed to this but I think he and a lot of other amazing inventors of the last hundred years have enjoyed starting from a technology they wanted to have work and then tried to figure out if they could. I’m sure, at the margins, that happens at X, but it is not our process. We work really hard for that not to be our process, because chasing the tech first can occasionally lead to wonderful things, but it’s not the most efficient way to get important answers.
This Venn diagram defines the kind of moonshot projects that X wants to pursue. Image: X
So our process is first you have to say what the huge problem is you’re trying to solve. You have to be able to describe it in order for it to have any chance of taking root at X. And there has to be some articulatable, hard but potentially solvable, technology problem at the middle of it. Once that’s true, we go down a path where instead of saying, “What’s most fun to do about this or what’s easiest to do first?” we say, “What is the most likely reason this project won’t make it?”
So if we were working on Edward’s space travel idea—just to use the example that you’ve given me—instead of saying, “How good a propulsion system would this be?” we would say, “Of all of the possible reasons—cost, danger to the astronaut, heat—what is the most likely reason this will turn out to be a bad idea?” Let’s just look at that for an hour, a day if necessary. If we succeed in killing the idea on the basis of that, thank god we didn’t work on all the other issues first. And if we don’t [kill it], if the first thing that we named doesn’t turn out to be an Achilles’ heel for this project, great. Then let’s go and look at the next two or three most exposed aspects of the project.
Spectrum: So the thing that might kill an idea, it could be a major technical limitation, or maybe it’s just cost?
Teller: I get asked frequently, “At what stage do you make a business plan for the moonshot?” And the answer is never Stage 1 or Stage 5 or Stage 17. The answer is always, “Is making a business plan the next most efficient thing we can do to try to kill this project?” And there are some projects where we have a business plan now and it becomes more detailed all the time. Let’s say for the self-driving car group. We never said in the early days, “Okay, let’s make the business plan.” Because if you can make cars that drive themselves, the world is going to change in such a dramatic way that the details of your business plan are not going to kill that as a project.
There are other things that we’re doing, let’s say our airborne wind turbines, that’s such a cost-driven business—energy generation—that’s all determined by the levelized cost of energy, the LCOE, and that number is what determines whether you’re competitive or not. So we need to be thinking sooner rather than later about that for that project.
- Dreaming Up Moonshots
Spectrum: You once said that for every major project that takes off at X—like the self-driving car—you
consider lots and lots of other ideas. How do you keep coming up with
new stuff? And how do you compete with other places like, say, Y
Combinator, and other incubators and accelerators that have people
bringing them ideas all the time?
Teller: We have a team that’s dedicated to coming up with ideas, but the rest of X, and to a less extent the rest of Alphabet, and in particular the founders [Larry Page and Sergey Brin], are sources of ideas. And we’re looking at academic work that’s happening all the time. We go to conferences, and we invite people to come visit us. So people bring us ideas, too.
We sometimes bring academics who have special expertise in for months at a time to just see if we can find something. What typically happens is that you’ll sit with us for three or four months trying to talk us into doing more and more research on the thing you like doing, and we’ll keep trying to talk you into reframing your excitement in the terms that I gave: Huge problem with the world, radical proposed solution, underlying hard technology problem that can cause that radical solution to be realized. Sometimes we can’t connect—our way of being and your way of being just don’t match. And occasionally it does work. For example, the contact lens work that we did came out of two academics from the University of Washington.
Spectrum: Yes, they wrote an article on bionic eyesight for Spectrum in 2009.
Teller: There you go. [X’s Smart Contact Lens project became part of Verily, now a standalone life sciences company in Alphabet.]
A Database of FailuresSpectrum: And once you have all these ideas, how do you keep track of them? Do you put them on a database or a giant board on the wall?
Teller: We do keep track of projects, especially after we’ve killed them. For two reasons: No. 1, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel. We don’t want someone who gets hired two years after we kill a project to come up with the same idea and then spend three months rediscovering it.
Reason No. 2 is we want to keep track of the ideas that we’ve had—and we do have a database—because sometimes there are presumptions [that could be revisited]. Say we’re going to not work on this project because one of the necessary constituent ingredients is a battery with 10 times the energy density of lithium-ion; it doesn’t exist, we don’t consider that a safe bet that it will appear in the next five years, so let’s not start this project. But then if that battery appeared, we would want to be able to go back and say, “Hey, wait a second, now we can reconsider this as a potential moonshot because that was the reason we killed it and that technology has now appeared.”
So it’s not as indexed as that might make it sound. We can’t type, “We got the batteries” somewhere and then all of the moonshots that we killed because of batteries would like naturally drop out of our database. It’s not that organized. But we do internal post-mortems on these things so that we can learn.
One of the other reasons that we write up these little case-studies every time we kill a project, especially for the more advanced projects that we kill, is because we want to ask the question, “Okay, nobody is a bad person for not having succeeded here, but now that we know that this project should’ve been turned off, because we turned it off, how could we’ve gotten to this answer faster?” Hindsight is always 20/20, but we could still ask the question, and sometimes the answer is, you know, we played that about as well as it could be played, and there are other times where we say, “Yeah, that was kind of a mistake on our part, we could’ve looked at this thing where the Achilles’ heel was early on and we didn’t.” And maybe that’s because we didn’t have the expertise in house, but that’s not a good reason for not looking at, we should have hired a consultant and gotten that done faster.
Spectrum: How many entries do you have in this database?
Teller: I don’t know how many are in there, but I’m sure there are at least a hundred. The ones that are in the database are the ones that have received hundreds to thousands of person-hours. The ideas that don’t last very long don’t get put in there, but some of them are wonderful ideas.
For example, a few years ago someone asked, “I wonder if we could harvest the power in an avalanche.” I remember sitting around and we did some calculations about the total kinetic energy you could get from a medium-sized avalanche, how many avalanches a year were there, and if you had an idealized piece of equipment that you could somehow magically teleport from one place to another so it was always at the bottom of some avalanche that was happening—so what is like the best case scenario for this, and it just wasn’t big enough. We killed that idea in half an hour. And that was an intellectually stimulating half an hour, and I think that that was a gorgeous question that was asked. There’s no shame in most of the questions being wrong. You don’t really know which are genius and which are crazy until after you dig in.
Someone else, a year or two later, asked if could we put a ring of copper around the North Pole and have the Earth’s magnetic flux generate current in the copper coil. Now, how much would that copper cost, and how much would it cost to lay that coil? And then where is the place we could actually pull it down to, and how much heat would be lost along the way, and then, okay, what if we made the copper cross section bigger so that the resistance is lower so it loses less heat? Oh well, that’s a lot of copper all of a sudden. No, you can’t close the circle—pun intended—there. That one also probably died in half an hour.
Sergey’s BatcaveSpectrum: I’d like to talk about how X has evolved since it was formed six years ago and overseen by Sergey Brin. Back in 2013 you described X as “Sergey’s Batcave,” and you said he was Bruce Wayne and you were Lucius Fox…