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Astro Teller, head of X, Alphabet's innovation lab, leads a group of engineers, inventors, and designers devoted to futuristic moonshot projects.

Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at X, on the Future of AI, Robots, and Coffeemakers

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.

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MIT's ChainFORM modular robot

MIT's Modular Robotic Chain Is Whatever You Want It to Be

As sensors, computers, actuators, and batteries decrease in size and increase in efficiency, it becomes possible to make robots much smaller without sacrificing a whole lot of capability. There’s a lower limit on usefulness, however, if you’re making a robot that needs to interact with humans or human-scale objects. You can continue to leverage shrinking components if you make robots that are modular: in other words, big robots that are made up of lots of little robots.

In some ways, it’s more complicated to do this, because if one robot is complicated, n robots tend to be complicatedn. If you can get all of the communication and coordination figured out, though, a modular system offers tons of advantages: robots that come in any size you want, any configuration you want, and that are exceptionally easy to repair and reconfigure on the fly.

MIT’s ChainFORM is an interesting take on this idea: it’s an evolution of last year’s LineFORM multifunctional snake robot that introduces modularity to the system, letting you tear of a strip of exactly how much robot you need, and then reconfigure it to do all kinds of things.

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Salto jumping robot

UC Berkeley's Salto Is the Most Agile Jumping Robot Ever

Ron Fearing's Biomimetic Millisystems Lab at UC Berkeley is famous for its stable of bite-sized bio-inspired robots, and Duncan Haldane is responsible for a whole bunch of them. He's worked on running robots, robots with wings, robots with tails, and even robots with hairs, in case that's your thing. What Haldane and the other members of the lab are especially good at is looking to some of the most talented and capable animals for inspiration in their robotic designs.

One of most talented and capable (and cutest) jumping animals is a fluffy little thing called a galago, or bushbaby. They live in Africa, weigh just a few kilos, and can leap tall (nearly two meter) bushes in a single bound. Part of the secret to this impressive jumping ability, which biologists only figured out a little over a decade ago, is that galagos use the structure of their legs to amplify the power of their muscles and tendons. In a paper just published in the (brand new!) journal Science Robotics, Haldane (along with M. M. Plecnik, J. K. Yim, and R. S. Fearing) demonstrate the jumping capability of a little 100g robot called Salto, which leverages the galago's tricks into what has to be the most agile and impressive legged* jumping skill we've ever seen.

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Kengoro humanoid robot that sweats and does push-ups

Video Friday: Kengoro the Sweaty Robot, Camera Drone on a Leash, and the Next Frontier in AI

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next two months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work – December 05, 2016 – Houston, Texas, USA
RiTA 2016 – December 11-14, 2016 – Beijing, China
SIMPAR 2016 – December 13-16, 2016 – San Francisco, Calif., USA
WAFR 2016 – December 18-20, 2016 – San Francisco, Calif., USA

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

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Robot gift guide

Robot Gift Guide 2016

Welcome to the fifth edition of our annual Robot Gift Guide! This year, we bring you a dozen robots that we think will make fantastic holiday gifts. Just as we’ve done in the past (for a quick trip through recent robotics history, check out the 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 editions), this year’s selection includes mostly new products released in 2016 but also some items from previous years that we still like. We tested many of these bots ourselves, and you might have seen our in-depth reviews here on the blog. And while we provide prices and links to places where you can buy these items, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of searching may result in better deals (all prices are in U.S. dollars). Lastly, if you think we missed the best robot thing (or things) of the year, let us know in the comments.

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Root educational robot

How Root Wants to Bring Coding to Every Classroom

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

The push to teach coding in U.S. schools has been growing: Thanks to initiatives like the White House’s CS for All program, computer science is now recognized as a core skill for today’s students. A new study by Gallup and Google revealed that 90 percent of parents want their child to learn CS, yet only 40 percent of K-12 school districts offer some kind of CS course. Teacher recruitment and training efforts are beginning to solve the problem at the high-school level, but in K-8 schools (where very few schools offer CS and many teachers are generalists) the challenges are different. Many teachers without much coding experience understandably feel anxious about integrating this new literacy into their classrooms.

Our team at Harvard University is hoping to change that with Root. Root is a new kind of robot that colors outside the lines of the educational robotics category by providing unique capabilities along with a programming interface that grows with its user, bringing coding to life for all ages. After nearly three years of development, Root and its companion app, Root Square, have emerged as a solution to ease teachers’ anxiety about adding coding to the lessons that they teach.

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NABiRoS humanoid robot from RoMeLa

NABiRoS Robot Makes Us Wonder Why We All Don't Walk Sideways

One of the many things that makes humanoid walking tricky is the fact that when we walk, we’re off balance almost all of the time. For some silly reason, our legs are positioned to the left and right when we spend most of our time walking forwards, which means that walking means constantly rocking sideways while also leaning in the direction we’re going. Most robots don’t try to walk like this, and the few that do tend to be very complex and difficult to manage.

At UCLA, Dennis Hong’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) has come up with a robot design that’s a novel new take on bipedal walking. By doing away with anthropomorphic design and turning a humanoid robot sideways, they’ve been able to create a stable and agile bipedal design that’s simple and cheap at the same time.

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Keepon dancing robot

Video Friday: Self-Racing Cars, Robot Grumpy Cat, and Where's Keepon?

On a Friday morning nine (!) years ago, I published a post with just one video and one line of text on, the robotics blog I ran at the time before joining IEEE Spectrum. That was the beginning of Video Friday. 

As more and more robot video content started showing up over the years, Video Friday turned into a way to keep you updated on everything that happened all week in one efficient (and hopefully entertaining) post.

At one point Video Friday grew to include something like 30 videos (if we’ve crashed your browser, we’re very sorry!). We’ve now toned it down to around 20 videos by being slightly more selective. But we’d love some feedback on how many videos you’d like to see every week.

So, if you wouldn’t mind helping us out with this tiny little poll, we’d really appreciate it.

Definitely let us know if you have other suggestions for how we could make Video Friday better for you, either in the comments below or more directly via email or Twitter.

Also, a special shout-out to everyone who started reading on and is still reading on here. Thanks for sticking with me. Just for fun, we’ll start off Video Friday today with five videos from some very early (2007-2009) Video Friday posts. Enjoy!

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Researchers develop cockroach robot that flips itself with insect-inspired wings

Cockroach Robot Flips Itself With Insect-Inspired Wings

For the last several years, we’ve been following closely (and somewhat uncomfortably) the development of robot cockroaches. Depending on your perspective, it’s either good news or bad news that they seem to be spreading. As roboticists graduate from the original home of the robot cockroach at UC Berkeley, they’re taking roachbot research everywhere.

Chen Li was a researcher at Berkeley’s Poly-PEDAL Lab and Biomimetic Millisystems Lab, where he gave little legged robots cockroach-inspired shells to help them push through obstacles. Li now has his own lab at Johns Hopkins University: the Terradynamics Lab studies “movement science at the interface of biology, robotics, and physics.” At IROS 2016, he presented a paper demonstrating a new trick for legged robots with shells: Ground-based dynamic self-righting, or flipping over using wing covers like a real insect does.

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BALLU Humanoid Blimp Robot

Meet BALLU, UCLA's Humanoid Blimp Robot

The 2016 IEEE International Conference on Humanoid Robots kicks off today. It’s taking place at the Westin Resort & Spa Cancun, which sounds awful, but at least there are some cool new robots, and one of the coolest has to be BALLU, from Dennis Hong at UCLA’s Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa). BALLU, or Buoyancy Assisted Lightweight Legged Unit (Professor Hong loves a good acronym), is a humanoid-ish robot with a body made of helium balloons and a pair of thin articulated legs. Since it weighs next to nothing, it never falls over, and can walk, hop, and perform a variety of other useful bipedal motions as long as you don’t take it outside on a windy day. 

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IEEE Spectrum’s award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, drones, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
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Washington, D.C.

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