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Transcript: The Unexpected Benefit of Celebrating Failure by Astro Teller

Astro Teller

Here is the full transcript of scientist Astro Teller’s TED Talk: The Unexpected Benefit of Celebrating Failure at TED 2016 conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: the-unexpected-benefit-of-celebrating-failure-by-astro-teller


In 1962 at Rice University, JFK told the country about a dream he had, a dream to put a person on the moon by the end of the decade. The eponymous moonshot.

No one knew if it was possible to do but he made sure a plan was put in place to do it if it was possible. That’s how great dreams are.

Great dreams aren’t just visions, they’re visions coupled to strategies for making them real. I have the incredible good fortune to work at a moonshot factory. At X — formerly called Google X — you’ll find an aerospace engineer working alongside a fashion designer and former military ops commanders brainstorming with laser experts. These inventors, engineers and makers are dreaming up technologies that we hope can make the world a wonderful place. We use the word “moonshots” to remind us to keep our visions big — to keep dreaming. And we use the word “factory” to remind ourselves that we want to have concrete visions — concrete plans to make them real.

Here’s our moonshot blueprint. Number one: we want to find a huge problem in the world that affects many millions of people. Number two: we want to find or propose a radical solution for solving that problem. And then number three: there has to be some reason to believe that the technology for such a radical solution could actually be built.

But I have a secret for you. The moonshot factory is a messy place. But rather than avoid the mess, pretend it’s not there, we’ve tried to make that our strength. We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we’re wrong. That’s it, that’s the secret. Run at all the hardest parts of the problem first. Get excited and cheer, “Hey! How are we going to kill our project today?”

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We’ve got this interesting balance going where we allow our unchecked optimism to fuel our visions. But then we also harness enthusiastic skepticism to breathe life, breathe reality into those visions. I want to show you a few of the projects that we’ve had to leave behind on the cutting room floor, and also a few of the gems that at least so far, have not only survived that process, but have been accelerated by it.

Last year we killed a project in automated vertical farming. This is some of the lettuce that we grew. One in nine people in the world suffers from undernourishment. So this is a moonshot that needs to happen. Vertical farming uses 10 times less water and a hundred times less land than conventional farming. And because you can grow the food close to where it’s consumed, you don’t have to transport it large distances.

We made progress in a lot of the areas like automated harvesting and efficient lighting. But unfortunately, we couldn’t get staple crops like grains and rice to grow this way. So we killed the project.

Here’s another huge problem. We pay enormous costs in resources and environmental damage to ship goods worldwide. Economic development of landlocked countries is limited by lack of shipping infrastructure. The radical solution? A lighter-than-air, variable-buoyancy cargo ship. This has the potential to lower, at least overall, the cost, time and carbon footprint of shipping without needing runways. We came up with this clever set of technical breakthroughs that together might make it possible for us to lower the cost enough that we could actually make these ships — inexpensively enough in volume. But however cheap they would have been to make in volume it turned out that it was going to cost close to $200 million to design and build the first one. $200 million is just way too expensive. Because X is structured with these tight feedback loops of making mistakes and learning and new designs, we can’t spend $200 million to get the first data point about whether we’re on the right track or not. If there’s an Achilles’ heel in one of our projects, we want to know it now, up front, not way down the road. So we killed this project, too.

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Discovering a major flaw in a project doesn’t always mean that it ends the project. Sometimes it actually gets us onto a more productive path. This is our fully self-driving vehicle prototype, which we built without a steering wheel or brake pedal. But that wasn’t actually our goal when we started.

With 1.2 million people dying on the roads globally every year, building a car that drives itself was a natural moonshot to take. Three and a half years ago, when we had these Lexus, retrofitted, self-driving cars in testing, they were doing so well, we gave them out to other Googlers to find out what they thought of the experience. And what we discovered was that our plan to have the cars do almost all the driving and just hand over to the users in case of emergency was a really bad plan.

It wasn’t safe because the users didn’t do their job. They didn’t stay alert in case the car needed to hand control back to them. This was a major crisis for the team. It sent them back to the drawing board. And they came up with a beautiful, new perspective. Aim for a car where you’re truly a passenger. You tell the car where you want to go, you push a button and it takes you from point A to point B by itself. We’re really grateful that we had this insight as early on in the project as we did. And it’s shaped everything we’ve done since then.

And now our cars have self-driven more than 1.4 million miles, and they’re out everyday on the streets of Mountain View, California and Austin, Texas. The cars team shifted their perspective. This is one of X’s mantras. Sometimes shifting your perspective is more powerful than being smart.

Take wind energy. It’s one of my favorite examples of perspective shifting. There’s no way that we’re going to build a better standard wind turbine than the experts in that industry. But we found a way to get up higher into the sky, and so get access to faster, more consistent winds, and so more energy without needing hundreds of tons of steel to get there. Our Makani energy kite rises up from its perch by spinning up those propellers along its wing. And it pulls out a tether as it rises, pulling energy up through the tether. Once the tether’s all the way out, it goes into crosswind circles in the sky. And now those propellers that lifted it up have become flying turbines. And that sends energy back down the tether. We haven’t yet found a way to kill this project. And the longer it survives that pressure, the more excited we get that this could become a cheaper and more deployable form of wind energy for the world.

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