Astro Teller has an unusual way of starting a new project: He tries to kill it.
Teller is the head of X, formerly called Google X, the advanced technology lab of Alphabet. At X’s headquarters not far from the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif., Teller leads a group of engineers, inventors, and designers devoted to futuristic “moonshot” projects like self-driving cars, delivery drones, and Internet-beaming balloons.
To turn their wild ideas into reality, Teller and his team have developed a unique approach. It starts with trying to prove that whatever it is that you’re trying to do can’t be done—in other words, trying to kill your own idea. As Teller explains, “Instead of saying, ‘What’s most fun to do about this or what’s easiest to do first?’ we say, ‘What is the most likely reason this project won’t make it?’ ”
The ideas that survive get additional rounds of scrutiny, and only a tiny fraction eventually becomes official projects; the proposals that are found to have an Achilles’ heel are discarded, and Xers quickly move on to their next idea. It’s all part of Teller’s plan to “systematize innovation” and turn X into an assembly line of moonshots.
The moonshots that X has pursued since its founding six years ago are a varied bunch. While some were quite successful, such as Google Brain, which led to AI technologies now used in a number of Google products, others faced backlash, as was the case, most notably, with Google Glass. With Teller at the helm—his official title is “Captain of Moonshots”—X sees itself playing a key role in shaping the future of its parent company.
“If Alphabet wants to continue to grow, it needs to have one or more mechanisms for creating new problems to have,” Teller says, adding, “That’s X’s mission . . . our product is producing new Alphabet entities.”
To learn more about how they approach things at X, and get an update on its current projects, IEEE Spectrum senior editor Erico Guizzo spoke with Teller at Google’s office in New York City. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.