moonshot-factory

The Moonshot Factory

The moonshot factory, otherwise known as X, the moonshot factory, is a research and development facility and Google-owned organization that was founded in 2010. The factory is located in a former shopping mall about one and one-half miles from parent company Alphabet’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.

 

 

Understanding the moonshot factory

The moonshot factory is a Google-owned facility where the company seeks to solve humanity’s most wicked problems with radical new technologies.

X (formerly Google X) uses the facility to invent and launch moonshot technologies that can make the world a substantially better place to live. X defines a “moonshot” as one that lies at the intersection of a big problem, radical solution, and breakthrough technology. 

The moonshot factory aims to find ideas that can deliver 10x impact and not those that are merely incremental improvements on the status quo. According to a 2016 article by Astro Teller (the self-confessed Captain of Moonshots), an X project “must solve a problem that affects millions or billions of people; it has to have an audacious, sci-fi sounding technology; and there has to be at least a glimmer of hope that it’s actually achievable in the next 5-10 years.

Core principles and approach of the moonshot factory

X has realized that a moonshot happens when teams of passionate people dare to challenge the perspectives of others and aim for what others consider impossible.

This mission is supported by a principles-based approach as follows.

Tackle hard problems

Teams should fall in love with the problem, not the tech designed to solve it. They should understand the problem deeply before creative solutions are found.

This requires that the company seek out what it calls “T-shaped” personnel – or those who possess deep expertise, intellectual flexibility, and the ability to collaborate with others in different domains.

Find radical solutions

Radical solutions require teams with deep expertise from a wide gamut of disciplines and industries. They must be able to define sci-fi ideas that make a real-world impact as quickly as practicable. Collective expertise can mostly be found in:

  • AI and machine learning.
  • Robotics.
  • Hardware and software engineering, and
  • Business strategy

Engineer a cultural moonshot

X believes that the company itself is a moonshot, but instead of a radical new technology, it is employees that are the breakthrough idea. 

To create a culture conducive to moonshots, certain values and practices help employees avoid pursuing the conventional or comfortable. This ensures that purpose-driven creativity is the path of least resistance.

Assemble small but diverse teams

Moonshot factory teams are not only highly skilled and experienced: they also offer diverse perspectives and come from different backgrounds. 

In some teams at X, scientists collaborate with puppeteers and concert pianists, while in others machine learning experts mingle with marine biologists. Each moonshot has a core staff that is kept as small as possible, but teams are supplemented on occasion by a permanent roster of in-house experts.

Many of these experts help the team’s moonshot make contact with the real-world and address issues related to physics, mechanical engineering, user experience research, public opinion, and public policy.

Balance the portfolio

The moonshot factory must strike the delicate balance between placing large bets on the future and not scaring off the people who fund idea development. 

To ensure the longevity of the moonshot factory and X itself, the team looks to balance the portfolio with a mixture of different industries and problems. The portfolio should also contain a mix of short-term (closer to 5 years) and long-term (closer to 10 years) ideas with clear budgets and limitations.

Be responsibly irresponsible

Perhaps unsurprisingly, moonshot factory teams embrace failure and see it as an effective way to learn and make progress. According to Astro Teller, this is one of the company’s most important values. 

Employees are encouraged to be responsibly irresponsible and make frequent mistakes that end in failure. This requires that convention is dismissed from the outset and critical risks are identified early. Following this strategy, the team can “learn cheaply” because they receive rapid feedback on whether the idea is viable without spending vast sums of money.

Establish kill signals

Following on from the point above is the notion of kill signals. These are metrics that if a team reaches (or indeed fails to reach within a certain timeframe), indicate that the project should be killed. Using kill signals, moonshot factory teams remain intellectually honest and can make difficult decisions with clarity. 

Foghorn is one example of a project that was shelved. While the project successfully produced sustainable fuel from seawater, it was determined that it could not do so at a rate that was cheaper than gasoline from the pump. After X killed the project, it nevertheless published the results in a scientific paper and awarded the team a bonus.

Active moonshot factory projects

Chorus

The Chorus project aims to improve how goods are moved and used around the world. For the past three and a half years, a small team has been working with various partners to understand supply chain vulnerabilities and why delays, bottlenecks, and waste occur.

Despite goods worth trillions of dollars being transported globally each year, many businesses still lack the tools to identify where their items are in real time. While the project is very much in its infancy, Chorus is currently developing new software and machine learning tools to improve visibility into a product’s location.

To that end, the Chorus team has asked some important questions. What if every item, box, and pallet had a voice? What if perishable items such as food or important medical supplies could send an alert if they were too cold, too hot, or near their expiry date?

Mineral

Mineral is a project that aims to change what the world grows for food and how it is grown. Less than 1% of the known 30,000 edible plant species are grown for food, with staples like rice, wheat, and maize planted to maximize productivity on a per-acre basis.

However, an agricultural system that is standardized and maximized for productivity comes with inherent risks. Food crops become more vulnerable to disease, pests, and climate change. The soil in which crops are grown also become less fertile over time with large applications of pesticides and fertilizer.

Mineral seeks to address this issue by helping farmers and food producers unlock the genetic diversity of some of the thousands of uncultivated edible plant species. Might there be some species that are more resilient to a changing climate or have the ability to restore soil health?

The Mineral plant rover

Based on consultation with producers around the world, the Mineral team saw an opportunity to build new software and hardware that would help them make sense of vast and diverse information. Basic platforms could show soil, weather, and historical crop data, but the team also developed a prototype plant rover that could assess how crops were responding to their environment in real-time. 

One prototype has spent several years analyzing strawberry and soybean crops in the United States. It takes a high-quality image of each plant and counts every berry or bean as well as plant height and total leaf area. 

When imagery from the rover is combined with soil and weather data, machine learning is used to identify patterns and yield insights into how plants respond to their environment. Mineral graduated from the rapid prototype stage in January 2023 and is now an independent subsidiary of Alphabet.

Graduated moonshot factory projects

Loon

Project Loon was an early research and development project that commenced in 2011. The project offered internet access to remote and rural areas with high-altitude balloons that created an aerial wireless network.

The first balloons were launched in New Zealand in 2013 and at one point, Google planned to have thousands of them in the stratosphere. Loon was spun out as a separate company in July 2018 but was shut down in early 2021 with the company citing a lack of commercial viability.

Brain

Brain was also started in 2011 as a way to increase access to the benefits of AI and machine learning. While advances in this field are occurring at a rapid pace today, progress was slow in 2011 and deep learning was very much confined to academia.

Google employees Jeff Dean and Greg Corrado together with Stanford professor Andrew Ng started the project with a large-scale deep-learning software system known as DistBelief. Use of the proprietary system grew rapidly across Google in various research and commercial contexts, with the second-generation system later known as TensorFlow. 

TensorFlow is a flexible system that can be used with programming languages such as JavaScript, C++, Java, and Python. This flexibility makes it suitable for a diverse range of applications in different industries. 

Brain is one of the company’s most successful projects to date and, according to Astro Teller, has more than covered the entire cost of X.

Waymo

Waymo started life as the Google Self-Driving Car Project in January 2009. Waymo LLC is now an autonomous driving tech company and Alphabet subsidiary with research initially performed at the Google X lab headed by co-founder Sergey Brin.

The impetus for starting Waymo was to make driving safer, with Google noting on the project’s website that 94% of the 1.25 million road accident deaths around the world each year are caused by human error.

The Waymo autonomous vehicle was based on a Toyota Prius with sensors that would allow it to detect objects during the day and night. The team later conducted over 100,000 miles of autonomous driving in challenging situations around California. These included navigating the Golden Gate Bridge and up mountainous roads to Lake Tahoe.

Firefly

After a second vehicle based on a Lexus SUV was trained to recognize pedestrians, cyclists, and hundreds of different roadside objects, the project team wondered if they could build an autonomous vehicle from scratch.

A prototype named Firefly was later developed with no steering wheel or pedals and an assortment of LIDAR, radar, and camera sensors were seamlessly built into its design

While banned in some states, these vehicles took to the streets in California and Texas where they proved capable of handling even the most difficult driving tasks. Firefly could detect and respond to emergency vehicles and even mastered complex, multi-lane four-way stop intersections.

Waymo graduated from X in 2016. By that time, its self-driving vehicles had totaled more than 2 million miles of driving on American roads – equivalent to the amount of driving a person could do if given 300 years.

Chronicle

In 2016, X started on a moonshot that would help companies combat cyberattacks. With the frequency and effectiveness of cyberattacks increasing faster than companies could train professionals to prevent them, it was clear that a solution was needed.

The team recognized that vast amounts of security-related data made it hard for organizations to respond to threats in a timely manner. In response, Chronicle developed a cybersecurity intelligence and analytics platform to enable enterprise clients to better understand and manage their data.

More specifically, the platform combines large amounts of storage and computational power with machine learning to help teams find patterns in the data. These patterns, which are often missed by trained experts, provide a holistic view of a security situation and seek to shorten the time between when an attack occurs and when it is discovered.

The team subsequently developed a security telemetry platform called Backstory and announced that they would be collaborating with the Google Cloud team. Backstory and a few other tools are now offered to Google Cloud customers as part of its autonomic security solutions feature.

While Chronicle has enabled businesses to respond to threats with greater speed and agility, X recognizes that the real moonshot is yet to be achieved. One day, it is hoped that Chronicle will help clients predict and deflect cyberattacks proactively.

Key takeaways

  • The Brain moonshot factory is a Google-owned facility where the company seeks to solve humanity’s most wicked problems with radical new technologies.
  • X understands that a moonshot occurs when teams of passionate people dare to challenge the perspectives of others and aim for what is considered impossible. Some core principles include: be responsibly irresponsible, balance the portfolio, and assemble small but diverse teams.
  • Some of the moonshot factory’s graduated projects include Loon, a balloon-based wireless aerial network, the autonomous vehicle project Waymo, the cloud-based cybersecurity project Chronicle, and the machine learning project Brain.

Key Insights:

  • The Moonshot Factory (X): X, also known as the Moonshot Factory, is a research and development facility owned by Google, focused on solving humanity’s most challenging problems using radical new technologies.
  • Moonshot Definition: X defines a “moonshot” as a project that tackles a big problem with a radical solution and breakthrough technology, aiming for 10x impact rather than incremental improvements.
  • Core Principles: X follows a principles-based approach, including falling in love with the problem, finding radical solutions with diverse expertise, and fostering a culture conducive to moonshots.
  • Small, Diverse Teams: X assembles small but diverse teams, bringing together experts from various disciplines and backgrounds to work on moonshot projects.
  • Balancing the Portfolio: X balances its portfolio with a mixture of different industries and problems, including short-term and long-term ideas with clear budgets.
  • Embracing Failure: X encourages teams to be responsibly irresponsible, embracing failure as a way to learn and make progress. Kill signals are used to identify when a project should be terminated.
  • Active Projects: Among the active projects at X are Chorus, aiming to improve global goods movement, and Mineral, focused on diversifying food crops for resilience and sustainability.
  • Graduated Projects: Notable graduated projects include Loon, an aerial wireless network using high-altitude balloons, Waymo, an autonomous driving tech company, and Chronicle, a cybersecurity intelligence platform.
  • Brain Project: The successful Brain project focused on AI and machine learning, leading to the creation of TensorFlow, which has more than covered the entire cost of X.

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