By Lauren Goode
Few subsidiaries at Alphabet Inc. inspire as much curiosity as Google X, now called simply “X.” X is the company’s innovation lab, where ambitious but far-fetched tech ideas are pitched, tested, and either come to life or are ultimately killed. It’s where Google’s self-driving car concept was developed, where giant internet access balloons were conceived, where glucose-monitoring contact lenses were first experimented with, and where burrito-delivering drones are part of a beta test for bigger things.
And while more than 250 employees are behind these far-fetched projects, for the past five years the face of X has been Astro Teller, the so-called “Captain of Moonshots.”
Teller has the CV of a mad scientist: he has degrees in computer science, symbolic and heuristic computation, and a PhD in artificial intelligence from Carnegie Mellon University. After his time in academia, he founded health-tracking company Body Media (acquired by Jawbone) before joining Google X. With his goatee, ponytail, and the Rollerblades he wears everywhere, all day, Teller has become one of Google’s most recognizable characters. He is a published author of both fiction and nonfiction books; he gives TED Talks.
Project Wing, which is X’s drone project, recently tested food delivery by drone. Have you had a burrito delivered to you by drone?
How was it?
It was great. It was actually slightly magical. I think people over-focus on drones plus burritos. I guess I understand why they can over-fixate on that, but here’s how I would describe it.
Every time we have, as a society, as a species, removed another big chunk of the friction in how physical things are moved around in the physical world — boats, planes, trains, horses and the pony express, the mail system — [we have] profoundly changed society. It’s easy for us to see those things looking backwards because we’ve become used to not having the frictions that have been removed. We would never go back, but we’re very used to the remaining friction and how physical things are moved around in the physical world.
[Let’s say] you could just snap your fingers and have something magically appear in your hand whenever you wanted it [at] no cost, and it was instantaneous. You have a hammer in your home. You probably have a power drill. You use it one-10,000th of the time, maybe one-100,000th of the time. If that hammer was sitting in some central location, it could be shared by thousands of people, really safely, making everybody wealthier functionally because they would get the hammer when they need it without having to pay for the hammer and drain the world’s resources by making all of these hammers that go almost entirely unused.
You have a drawer full of batteries right now in your home, I guarantee you, that are discharging very slowly. Maybe you have a little ziplock bag full of them, because you never know for sure when you’re going to need one and what shape it’s going to need to be.
Because you don’t know and because it’s surprisingly inconvenient to go to CVS or Walgreens to get another battery, you just keep all of these batteries in your home that are slowly discharging, most of which will hit zero without you ever using them. You’re wasting the planet in a really dramatic way and the reason you’re doing it is because you can’t just snap your fingers and have that battery appear.
If we could move from an ownership society to an access society where having it now wasn’t important… [but] having it when you need it, it would really dramatically, magically, change the world.
So in the future, drones will be flying through the air overhead. We won’t own as many things because we’ll be sharing them. Unmanned aerial vehicles will essentially power the sharing economy and reduce our carbon footprint — all of this great stuff. What is the biggest challenge to achieving that right now?
I don’t want to minimize the challenges for the Wing project. We need to make things that can successful move long distances completely autonomously with very high levels of safety and reasonably inexpensively. That is not a solved problem.
You want to make sure that you don’t hit a power line, that if something goes wrong with one of your motors, that you can land elegantly instead of just crashing out of the sky. That when you get where you’re going, the system can cope thoughtfully with where to put the package down and possibly taking a package back or something else.
There are a lot of as yet unsolved problems.
What is the thing or the project that X is doing right now [that] you think will have the most impact on society in five to 10 years?
I’m not going to pick the favorite of my children. That’s not a winning proposition. But I’m going to give you my honest answer.
I hope that in the end, when we look back at X 10 years from now, 20 years from now, the process that I’ve described to you our attempt to systematize innovation, to get that balance of crazy optimism and really hard skepticism, married together and balanced [will be] just right.
If we can get that right enough and demonstrate enough times that we have at least somewhat systematized innovation, I’m hopeful that that will turn out to be the thing that has the biggest impact rather than any one of the projects that comes out of X.
Read the full interview on The Verge
And check out Zuora CEO Tien Tzuo’s piece on how consumers increasingly prefer access over ownership – It’s Not a Software Story – It’s a Business Story