A visit to X: The tech moonshot factory is working on climate change
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This episode originally aired on Sept. 18, 2019.
As we look ahead to 2020 and think about tackling giant problems, climate change is high on the list. So, we wanted to re-air an interview with the leader of a company that thrives on tackling giant problems.
X, Formerly Google X, is the division of Alphabet devoted to moonshots — big, crazy technology bets that hopefully turn into companies. Its climate-related graduates include Dandelion, which harnesses heat from geothermal energy, and Malta, which uses salt to store excess energy produced from solar and wind farms.
I spoke with Astro Teller, who leads X and whose official title is captain of moonshots. He also goes everywhere at work on Rollerblades. Why Rollerblades? The X office is a former mall — it’s huge, and Teller decided it would be more efficient to roll places instead of walking. This is how he thinks about most things, with a filter that is ruthlessly efficient but still creative. I asked him how much of the work at X is focused on climate. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Astro Teller: We certainly don’t limit ourselves to the climate crisis, but there’s no problem in the world that is, metaphorically and literally, burning as bright today. Roughly half of the things that are here and are brewing are connected in one way or another to the climate crisis, either trying to mitigate it or trying to adapt.
Molly Wood: Tell me about some of the things that you are working on.
Teller: Food production. The world is starting to change faster and faster because of the climate crisis, and the tools that farmers have for understanding their crops, when all of those things are changing rapidly, it is not realistic to think that somehow the farmers of the world are going to cope elegantly with this rapid change. We have prototype buggies, which move through the fields, understand these crops and help farmers and breeders to learn about their fields in a resolution they’ve never had before, take care of their fields, and even change what their fields are going to be in future years, what crops they have. Having an agricultural brain, I think that is very much in the adaptation part of the space.
Wood: I’d love to get your thoughts then on the tech industry at large, because they’ve frankly been hesitant to invest in a big way in something that clearly has a market and an existential imperative. And I wonder what you think the responsibility is there, or if you think the solutions will come from outside [Silicon] Valley?
Teller: I certainly hope many solutions come from outside the valley. [If] it’s probably going to lose money … it looks kind of shaky … but it’s so good for the world. I just don’t believe [in] that. And it’s not because I don’t care. My version of caring is just a very hard-nosed, practical caring. I care so much to solve the problem that I’m willing to be dispassionate now in the name of getting these problems solved over 10 or 20 years. The Silicon Valley may not have a time horizon, which is conducive to solving certain problems. I don’t know what to say except good luck to them and we believe in longer time horizons.
Wood: I’ve heard you talk about how equity is a huge part of this conversation. There’s an environmental justice aspect to a lot of this work, as commercial solutions, if they appear, may not be affordable to everyone, may not be available [to everyone]. How much do you think of that day to day? How much of that is part of your conversations?
Teller: I think about it all the time, but I’m very torn about it. This is a perfect example about short-term sympathy actually being the enemy of long-term sympathy. The reality is most innovation, at the beginning, doesn’t work super well and it ends up being very expensive. Your early customers need to be price insensitive. And by and large, there are two price insensitive customer groups: wealthy people and the military. If your plan is to make something that’s going to be awesome in Africa, that’s great. But you need to tell me a story about what the beachhead is where we get paid enough in the early days to get the right traction so that it survives to the point where it can change the lives of a billion people. I’m OK with that in the name of getting as quickly as possible to a widespread solution.