Autonomous cars going around the block. Stratospheric balloons, designed to transmit internet to remote places, exposed in the lobby. The robots classifying garbage recycling. This futuristic scenario exists - and works - today, in X, formerly Google X, Alphabet's laboratory where the most innovative research is done.

A report from Wired magazine had access to the site, and told what is inside the "Moonshot Factory", the company's innovation factory, which operates in an old mall in Mountain View, California. His mission, as "captain" Eric "Astro" Teller explains, is "to invent and launch 'moonshot' [ambitious, disruptive] technologies that we hope will someday make the world a radically better place."

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To that end, in addition to autonomous cars (which are now an independent company, Waymo) and internet balloons (Loon), X built delivery drones (Wing), contact lenses that measure glucose in the tears of diabetics (Verily) and technology to store electricity using molten salt (Malta).

Malta, a Moonshot Factory company from X

Not to mention the projects that were left behind, such as carbon neutral fuel from seawater and the idea of ​​replacing sea freight with cargo airships. "Once, he seriously discussed the placement of a giant copper ring around the North Pole to generate electricity from Earth's magnetic field," says the report.

It may even seem that X only works on big projects, fantastic things that border on the absurd. But it’s very likely that every day you use something developed there, like Google Translate, which was developed in the deep learning division, as well as improvements for Search. The same happened with the GCam camera software, used in Google Pixel Phones; internal mapping on Google Maps; and Wear OS, Android operating system for wearable devices.

“Google Brain, the cars, Verily, everything - these are symptoms. Side effects of trying strange things, things that hardly work, ”explains Teller. "We are a creativity organization, not a technology organization". X, he explains, is not so much a company as a radical way of thinking, a method of pursuing technological advances by taking crazy ideas seriously. X's job is not to invent new Google products, but to produce the inventions that can form the next Google.

OX was originally born from Chauffeur, Google's autonomous car project, led by Stanford roboticist Sebastian Thrun. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the company's founders, admired Thrun for his work on Streetview and step-by-step directions on Google Maps, and on X they offered him the freedom to pursue equally unusual ideas. "We wanted to drive technologies in many different directions, including autonomous cars," recalls Thrun.

X's Moonshot Factory in Mountainview, California

During its first year of existence, X was a well-kept secret, even within the company. "I didn't want bureaucracy, PowerPoints, financial reporting or supervision, so that those responsible â € ¦" could focus entirely on the challenge, "says Thrun. Most of the initial ideas for the project came from Page and Brin themselves, who were very interested and ended up moving to X's building.

Teller took over in 2012, when Thrun moved to Coursera, his online education company. Before entering the laboratory, Astro (his nickname) created an Artificial Intelligence investment fund and sold a wearable sensor company. At school, to compensate for mild dyslexia, he solved all problems twice, using different methods. "So, if I had the same answer, it was the right answer," he says.

Not all X projects have survived. One of the first was Google Glass, a wearable computer in a pair of glasses. Brin loved the idea and pushed X to turn the first prototypes into consumer products. But in the real world, Glass faced bad criticism, mockery and outrage over possible invasions of privacy. "The real failure we had with Glass was when we were trying to talk about it as a learning platform, the audience started to respond to it as a product," says Teller.

Glass was discontinued as a product in 2015, but it still exists as a corporate tool. "Sometimes it just doesn't work, the technology isn't ready and we need to stop, stop and slow down," says Teller. He still believes that a Glass-like device will eventually fit.

Once a week, more or less, X's smartest minds gather in a conference room and start throwing the craziest ideas one after the other. To be considered, an idea must meet three criteria: address a significant global problem, involve the invention of an innovative technology and result in a radical result.

Teams are encouraged to set performance goals and “kill goals” - limits that, if lost, will automatically end the project. For example, Project Foghorn, X's attempt to turn seawater into fuel, has managed to produce fuel, but has failed to do so cheaply enough. X killed the project, published his findings as a scientific article and gave the team a bonus.

The ability to work with long-term problems is the great advantage of X: the patience of research, without the financial pressures of a startup. "There is really a big difference between an error rate of 1% and an error rate of 0,001%," says Teller, "a software failure in a mobile application is unlikely to be fatal, but one in an autonomous car can be" .

Waymo, created at X's Moonshot Factory

Since its start at X in 2009, Waymo has registered more than 16 million kilometers on public roads. In the past year, the autonomous vehicle company operated as a small-scale passenger transport service in Phoenix, Arizona, and currently works with Jaguar on its next generation of vehicles. Morgan Stanley recently valued the company at $ 105 billion.

Still, the mass adoption of self-driving cars is still a long way off, but X employees are happily working on technologies that may be decades away - knowing that advertising revenue keeps Google. Thrun remembers to ask former Google CEO and Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt for $ 30 million to finance a project. Schmidt gave him $ 150 million. "Eric told me, 'If I give you $ 30 million, you'll be back next month and ask for another $ 30 million.'"

When projects reach a certain scale, they “graduate” to become independent companies. Most, like Waymo, join other Alphabet bets. Some were acquired by Google or generated independently, such as renewable energy startups Dandelion and Malta. After “graduation”, project leaders become executives and employees receive a stake in the company. "When projects leave here, they don't end," says Teller. "There is still a lot of learning to be done."

Street: Wired