Free Enterprise Staff  | March 25, 2015

Google[x] Dreams Up World-Changing Technologies

AUSTIN, TX — Astro Teller, Google[x]’s director of moonshots, gave a remarkable insight at Austin’s SxSW into the search engine’s secretive lab. His team tackles big challenges with potentially even bigger payoffs well down the road. That includes working on robots, drones, neural networks, space elevators, and much more. ”When we say moonshots,” said Teller, “what we mean is that we’re shooting for things that are 10 times better.”

Google[x]’s mantra is that failure is the key to innovation, and that failing fast is better (and cheaper) than failing last. According to Teller, “If you want to make a ton of progress, you have to make a ton of mistakes.” He showed how Google’s self-driving car, one of Google[x]’s headlining projects, came upon something one day that no amount of lab testing could have anticipated: a broom-wielding woman shooing a duck out of the middle of the street. Teller wants his team “stumped like the duck again.”

Sometimes Google[x] fails at failure. Its Makani kites, airborne turbines that significantly reduce the cost of wind power, refused to crash despite testing in some of the most unpredictable environments. So in the next month Google will unveil full-scale models that “generate 50% more energy” and eliminate “90% of the materials used in conventional wind turbines.”

For as advanced as Google[x]’s work is, mundane regulations often intrude. For instance, its self-driving cars have rearview mirrors but no steering wheel or brake pedal (humans, according to Teller, aren’t a “reliable backup”). The mirror serves no purpose other than to satisfy California’s vehicle code. Google also must place wipers on the windshield, even though the system really “sees” through its 64-laser LIDAR unit.

Google[x] has taken its fair share of “bumps and scrapes,” Teller says, but “it’s been worth it every time.” He adds, “I would love Google[x] to inspire others to pursue their moonshots.”

This story originally appeared on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Blog.