The head of Google X thinks we’re all too risk-averse

November 13, 2013

(Photo courtesy theatlantic.com)

Google X is responsible for some of Google's most literally fantastic projects: Google Glass, self-driving cars, gigantic inflatable balloons that beam Internet down to the disconnected. Of course, Google would be the one working on these projects, we say. It's all so ...  Google-y.

But that's actually a reputation that Astro Teller, the head of Google X, wants to dispel.

Teller says there's nothing uniquely Google-y about moonshot ideas. Anyone can go after them. To think that the search giant should have a monopoly over coming up with crazy, awesome solutions to some big problems just because the results might happen to fit within the company's brand statement — or because the firm is loaded with cash — is exactly the opposite of what Teller says he wants people to believe.

Before he can whip us all into dreamy innovators, though, Teller faces a problem: Not enough of us are thinking creatively.

In an interview Wednesday with PBS's Hari Sreenivasan at The Atlantic's Washington Ideas Forum, Teller recounted a meeting he had the day before with someone on Capitol Hill.

The woman he met asked why Google wasn't working on providing more rural broadband. In fact, Project Loon, Google's wireless balloon initiative, is an attempt to do that. By floating high above the earth, the balloons will be able to  grant access to the Web via Wi-Fi to large underserved areas, or so the proposal goes. The problem with the woman's point of view, Teller said, was that her approach to rural broadband was simply to "just try harder" with existing solutions. There's an economic reason why Internet providers don't like building rural infrastructure: It's not profitable. Google X is attempting to circumvent those costs by rethinking the problem altogether.

Google is one of the few big corporate players in the moonshot business, and that's clearly served the company well. Yet it's also a source of frustration for Teller, because he believes that the group's relative isolation is indicative of a larger, national culture of negativity:

I hear this all the time. Everyone has a reason why they can't do moonshots. ... The little companies say: "We can't do moonshots. That's for the big companies to do, because you need lots of money to do moonshots." Then you go to the big companies and talk to them about why they should be doing moonshots ... The big companies say: "We can't take moonshots. That takes bravery, and you have to take big chances. We have to hit our quarterly numbers. That's for the little companies to do; they've got nothing to lose. We'll buy them after the moonshot works." You go to government and say, "You've been the ones that have been taking the moonshots all along!" They say: "Well, we can't take moonshots. That was 50 years ago. We are totally out of money. Come ask us in another 50 years." You go to the academics and say, "Will you take the moonshots for us?" They say: "Well, I mean, we write about moonshots. We like to talk about moonshots. We're not actually going to implement a moonshot. How am I going to publish a paper or get tenure implementing a moonshot? I'm not getting paid for that."

Everybody's got a reason.

To hear Teller describe it, the country is mired deep in a moonshot deficit, with thousands of people who either can't or won't take a risk to solve some of the world's biggest challenges. If that's true, then getting enough of the right people to think differently could be the biggest moonshot project of all.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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