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Marketplace @ SXSW

Astro Teller talks about making room for failure

Molly Wood Mar 19, 2015
Marketplace @ SXSW

Astro Teller talks about making room for failure

Molly Wood Mar 19, 2015

This week, Marketplace Tech is exploring South by Southwest Interactive, the tech-oriented event that draws tens of thousands of people to Austin, Texas every year.

We caught up Astro Teller, scientist, author and head of Google X, aka its “Captain of Moonshots.” Teller runs Google’s mysterious research facility tasked with achieving major breakthroughs in technology. He spoke with us about the culture at Google X, the ideas they have had to let go, and the single piece of technology he is waiting for.

So you’re the head of one of the most famously mysterious places in the tech world. What’s the most different thing about it as a workplace?

The talk that I just gave here at SXSW was about failure. And I think that subject is one of the things that’s sort of the Google X special sauce. We actually have a culture where doing the experimenting is the learning; is the innovation.

Not only okay but encouraged?

I am not sure that there is an alternative.

What’s the craziest idea that you guys completely passed on and are not doing anything about?

I am just throwing out random examples but…the first couple I can think of. Someone said, hey, I wonder how much power there is in an avalanche? So we’re like, do the math and is that practical? You know…throw that one out after half-an-hour. But that was worth doing. Someone else says, hey, what if we put a coil of copper around the North Pole and then harvest the magnetic flux of the earth’s core as it joggles back and forth, which will cause a current in that wire of copper and we can pipe that back down to Europe or something.

Bad idea? Not a good idea?

Several hours before we threw that out. But if you ever say to those people, that’s stupid, they will never bring you another idea.

Do you think culture then is more important than ideas?

It’s everything.

At one time, Google’s model was, “Don’t be evil.” I mean, is that a part of your thinking when you’re talking about putting giant coils of metal on the North Pole?

Of course. Actually that issue of “don’t be evil” is probably the number one reason we throw out ideas. It’s not just, “don’t be evil”, which is still the sort of inform mode for Google. We want to actively make the world…


If we can, a radically better place…That’s an even higher bar and that cuts off a bunch of avenues that we might otherwise have gone down. Maybe that even would have been lucrative. But what we lose in those ways, we more than make up for because everybody at Google X gets to be passionate and purpose-driven. And it translates into a special kind of progress.

How do you define the culture in terms of being good? I mean is that a challenge as well?

We don’t have some message from god that gives us a list of what’s good and what’s not good. Obviously we have to make our own flawed judgments about each thing. But when we try to make a car that drives itself, we believe – whether we’re right or not – we believe that there would be strong net positive benefit to the world if cars could drive themselves safer than people could.

What’s a piece of technology that you wish you had that you don’t have?

We have started a few projects that are sort of shells. They are like projects waiting to happen but we don’t have an idea but we are so desperate to do that project. Batteries is one of them. It comes up over and over and over again that a ten times increase in the weight-oriented density of batteries or the volume metric, the space oriented density of batteries, would enable so many other moonshots that that’s one that just constantly comes up over and over again and we will start that moonshot if we can find a great idea. We just haven’t found one yet. So it’s just sitting there like an empty box, waiting.


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