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GoogleX head talks moonshoots and need for failure

Sharon Gaudin | June 2, 2015
Astro Teller says Google Glass mistake was making the prototype sound ready for sale.

astro teller googlex
Astro Teller, head of GoogleX and also known as captain of moonshots, discusses successes and failures at the secretive innovation lab. Credit:Sharon Gaudin/Computerworld

SAN FRANCISCO -- At GoogleX, failure isn't just a good thing. It's something their engineers strive for.

"We need failures," said Astro Teller, head of GoogleX, the company's secretive innovation lab. "If we are going to build something, we need it to fail and fail quickly so we can learn as much about it as we can. If something doesn't fail, how are we going to learn from it?"

Teller spoke to a packed room Friday at Google I/O, the company's annual developers conference.

His subject was moonshots and failures. The company, he said, needs both.

Actually, according to Teller, everyone needs both moonshots and failures.

"We need to be reminded about the risks we're taking and the long-term things we're looking ahead to," said Teller, who's official title is Captain of Moonshots. "We can all work on moonshots. Working on things that aspire to be 100 times better, rather than 10 times better, is something really worth working toward. When you aspire to make the world that much better, you have to come at it from a new perspective and not depend on what people have done before."

During his talk, Teller touched on various projects the Google X group is working on, including self-driving cars, floating balloons in the stratosphere to bring Internet connectivity to remote areas and the increasingly maligned Google Glass wearable.

Google stopped selling the Glass prototype in January and pulled it out of the public spotlight so the device could be reworked. That move led to speculation that Google planned to kill the entire Glass project.

Teller said that's not the case, and that the computerized glasses have been moved from under the umbrella of GoogleX, and into its own niche at Google.

"Google Glass, I think, is making really good progress," he said. "It's graduated from GoogleX. We'll hear more about that."

He added that GoogleX made one great decision and one really bad decision on Glass.

"The thing we did right was get it out into the world," Teller said. "The Explorer program was the right thing to do. We were trying to learn about the social issues around Glass. But there were ways in which we were doing that, like putting it on a runway, that made people think this was a finished product and not a prototype. We left people with some confusing messages there and I wish we'd done that differently."

Teller also talked about Google's autonomous car project, noting that the car turned into far more than it had initially been expected to be.


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