How the tech giant is trying to leverage the science of breakthroughs and resurrect the lost art of invention
A snake-robot designer, a balloon scientist, a liquid-crystals technologist, an extradimensional physicist, a psychology geek, an electronic-materials wrangler, and a journalist walk into a room. The journalist turns to the assembled crowd and asks: Should we build houses on the ocean?
The setting is X, the so-called moonshot factory at Alphabet, the parent company of Google. And the scene is not the beginning of some elaborate joke. The people in this room have a particular talent: They dream up far-out answers to crucial problems. The dearth of housing in crowded and productive coastal cities is a crucial problem. Oceanic residences are, well, far-out. At the group’s invitation, I was proposing my own moonshot idea, despite deep fear that the group would mock it.
Like a think-tank panel with the instincts of an improv troupe, the group sprang into an interrogative frenzy. “What are the specific economic benefits of increasing housing supply?” the liquid-crystals guy asked. “Isn’t the real problem that transportation infrastructure is so expensive?” the balloon scientist said. “How sure are we that living in densely built cities makes us happier?” the extradimensional physicist wondered. Over the course of an hour, the conversation turned to the ergonomics of Tokyo’s high-speed trains and then to Americans’ cultural preference for suburbs. Members of the team discussed commonsense solutions to urban density, such as more money for transit, and eccentric ideas, such as acoustic technology to make apartments soundproof and self-driving housing units that could park on top of one another in a city center. At one point, teleportation enjoyed a brief hearing.
X is perhaps the only enterprise on the planet where regular investigation into the absurd is not just permitted but encouraged, and even required. X has quietly looked into space elevators and cold fusion. It has tried, and abandoned, projects to design hoverboards with magnetic levitation and to make affordable fuel from seawater. It has tried—and succeeded, in varying measures—to build self-driving cars, make drones that deliver aerodynamic packages, and design contact lenses that measure glucose levels in a diabetic person’s tears.
These ideas might sound too random to contain a unifying principle. But they do. Each X idea adheres to a simple three-part formula. First, it must address a huge problem; second, it must propose a radical solution; third, it must employ a relatively feasible technology. In other words, any idea can be a moonshot—unless it’s frivolous, small-bore, or impossible.
The purpose of X is not to solve Google’s problems; thousands of people are already doing that. Nor is its mission philanthropic. Instead X exists, ultimately, to create world-changing companies that could eventually become the next Google. The enterprise considers more than 100 ideas each year, in areas ranging from clean energy to artificial intelligence. But only a tiny percentage become “projects,” with full-time staff working on them. It’s too soon to know whether many (or any) of these shots will reach the moon: X was formed in 2010, and its projects take years; critics note a shortage of revenue to date. But several projects—most notably Waymo, its self-driving-car company, recently valued at $70 billion by one Wall Street firm—look like they may.
X is extremely secretive. The company won’t share its budget or staff numbers with investors, and it’s typically off-limits to journalists as well. But this summer, the organization let me spend several days talking with more than a dozen of its scientists, engineers, and thinkers. I asked to propose my own absurd idea in order to better understand the creative philosophy that undergirds its approach. That is how I wound up in a room debating a physicist and a roboticist about apartments floating off the coast of San Francisco.
I’d expected the team at X to sketch some floating houses on a whiteboard, or discuss ways to connect an ocean suburb to a city center, or just inform me that the idea was terrible. I was wrong. The table never once mentioned the words floating or ocean. My pitch merely inspired an inquiry into the purpose of housing and the shortfalls of U.S. infrastructure. It was my first lesson in radical creativity. Moonshots don’t begin with brainstorming clever answers. They start with the hard work of finding the right questions.