“I think people over-focus on drones plus burritos.”
Few subsidiaries at Alphabet Inc. inspire as much curiosity as Google X, now called simply “X.” X is the company’s innovation lab, where ambitious but far-fetched tech ideas are pitched, tested, and either come to life or are ultimately killed. It’s where Google’s self-driving car concept was developed, where giant internet access balloons were conceived, where glucose-monitoring contact lenses were first experimented with, and where burrito-delivering drones are part of a beta test for bigger things.
And while more than 250 employees are behind these far-fetched projects, for the past five years the face of X has been Astro Teller, the so-called “Captain of Moonshots.”
Q Let’s talk a little bit about the fear of change — how do you prepare society at large for radically new technologies?
A Historically, changes in our society, particularly those driven by technology, used to take a long time. One thousand years ago, when somebody came up with a new technology the time between when the technology was invented and when it was widespread in the world… was huge.
That gave us several generations during which people could come to terms with how society was being changed by that technology. One hundred years ago when the steam engine was introduced or the telegraph or the telephone, [and] somewhat later the television, those things spread through humanity much faster. They spread maybe on the order of 10 to 20 years.
Fast-forward to today, the time between when a new technology is introduced and when it’s completely changed the world has continued to shrink at a fast rate. It’s now probably five to seven years between when a new technology is introduced and when it really has changed society in a fundamental way. If the world is now changing faster than we can accommodate, it causes a huge incremental level of anxiety for society at large. That is our challenge.
The way we make laws and regulate technology is another good example where the pace at which we understand the technology and then build laws around that technology is now going sufficiently slower than the technology itself.A I think people over-focus on drones plus burritos. I guess I understand why they can over-fixate on that, but here’s how I would describe it.
Q Project Wing, which is X’s drone project, recently tested food delivery by drone. Have you had a burrito delivered to you by drone?
A It was great. It was actually slightly magical. I think people over-focus on drones plus burritos. I guess I understand why they can over-fixate on that, but here’s how I would describe it.
Every time we have, as a society, as a species, removed another big chunk of the friction in how physical things are moved around in the physical world — boats, planes, trains, horses and the pony express, the mail system — [we have] profoundly changed society. It’s easy for us to see those things looking backwards because we’ve become used to not having the frictions that have been removed. We would never go back, but we’re very used to the remaining friction and how physical things are moved around in the physical world.
[Let’s say] you could just snap your fingers and have something magically appear in your hand whenever you wanted it [at] no cost, and it was instantaneous. You have a hammer in your home. You probably have a power drill. You use it one-10,000th of the time, maybe one-100,000th of the time. If that hammer was sitting in some central location, it could be shared by thousands of people, really safely, making everybody wealthier functionally because they would get the hammer when they need it without having to pay for the hammer and drain the world’s resources by making all of these hammers that go almost entirely unused.
If we could move from an ownership society to an access society where having it now wasn’t important… [but] having it when you need it, it would really dramatically, magically, change the world.
This is a wide-ranging interview with an obviously brilliant man. I highly recommend the video – sorry it’s not embedded – you will have to go back to the site – but it is well worth the trip.
The whole notion that drones could make some? many? most? things readily available goes well beyond the Amazon delivery concept. Certainly, Teller nods to the inefficiency of using a 4,000-pound vehicle to deliver something weighing a few ounces or pounds. But the idea that drones could be so ubiquitous that they could expand the concept of the sharing economy is new to me and very exciting.