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 whole profile is a must read. I am currently fascinated by X's work as their Project Loon is being used in Puerto Rico to assist with emergency communications in the Hurricane Maria ravaged island. From the profile:
The idea struck more than a few people as ridiculous. “I thought I was going to be able to prove it impossible really quickly,” said Cliff L. Biffle, a computer scientist and Rapid Eval manager who has been at X for six years. “But I totally failed. It was really annoying.” Here was an idea, the team concluded, that could actually work: a network of balloons, equipped with computers powered by solar energy, floating 13 miles above the Earth, distributing internet to the world. The cause was huge; the solution was radical; the technology was feasible. They gave it a name: Project Loon.