To create the future we want, we need more moonshots

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Tim O'Reilly and Astro Teller talk about technology and society, and the importance of moonshots.


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In this week’s Radar Podcast episode, Tim O’Reilly sits down with Google X’s Astro Teller. Their wide-ranging conversation covers moonshots, the relationship between technology and society, the learning process for hardware, and more. What follows are some snippets of their conversation to whet your appetite — you can listen to the entire interview in the SoundCloud player below, or download the podcast through Stitcher, TuneIn, or iTunes.

Technology doesn’t create net losses for the economy

Tim O’Reilly: The policy makers, I think, need to stop talking about creating jobs and start talking about the work we need to do in the world, because if you do that work, you do create jobs. I was struck by this when I went to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. He was really into scientific agriculture, as was Thomas Jefferson. He had this vision that America could feed the world. There was that economic vision: there is something that needs doing. One of the things I love about Google X is it’s driven by solving problems, and those problems actually often do create new opportunities for work.

Astro Teller: I completely agree with you about the problems. In addition, when you look at the history of technology — its introduction, and what happened in society afterword — technology has functioned in every case in the past as a lever for the human mind or for the human body. Things like the introduction of spreadsheets destroyed the business, the profession of bookkeeping — but because we trained people, we as society trained people, they became accountants, they became analysts. As many jobs as were lost were created, and more work, more productivity was created in the process. The bulldozer took away, in a very analogous way, a lot of jobs from people who were digging with shovels, but because we trained them to do things like build the bulldozers, drive the bulldozers, maintain the bulldozers, it wasn’t a net loss for the economy.

I believe that the failure mode we are currently in, to the extent that there’s a failure mode, is not the introduction of new technologies but the failure of our society to train the young people of the world so that they will be prepared to use these more and more sophisticated levers.

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Keep the focus on learning

O’Reilly: In your [Solid Conference] talk, you were discussing what you’ve learned from Project Loon, but also how you learned it. You made the point that the way that you do the process can be as important as what you actually get out of it.

Teller: In previous talks I’ve given, I’ve focused on the idea of failure being the engine for innovation, not being afraid of failure but seeing it as a learning opportunity, and the value of getting out into the world and testing things earlier rather than later. That actually doesn’t answer the question, “What should you do first?” So, what I tried to talk about more today in a little bit more detail was the process of knowing when you can put something off for several years, just punt it, and is that the smart thing — to punt or not? For example, if you can put something off for several years in a big hard project and the thing that you’re putting off is the thing that is most likely in the end to be the reason the whole project doesn’t work, it was a horrible idea to put it off, even if you can put it off and look like you’re making progress, it’s a ladder to the moon. It’s exactly the wrong thing to do.

On the other hand, if you’re very confident that it’s just hard work and that you’re not going to learn at the end, then it’s your Achilles heel, and you have to be intellectually honest with yourselves about that. Then, by all means, do find some way to put in a hack if necessary, but put it off as long as possible because you’re not going to learn anything by doing it.

O’Reilly: There’s also the possibility that someone else will make progress there.

Teller: Sure, exactly, but let me give you an example that I didn’t use in the talk today. I do this frequently with teams where I say, “Make me a list of the 20 things that you think we should do, in order.” They’ll come up with their list. Then I say, “Okay, reorder that list relative to what you think will cause the most learning.” Invariably, it’s a different list. Then I say, “Let’s just do the top two things on your second list, on the learning list.” Without fail, what happens is that so much has been learned after those first two things have happened that we have to totally remake the list, and then I say to the group, “That’s why we don’t do the first list.”

Moonshots are everyone’s job

O’Reilly: The concept of audaciousness is really critical. … I think there’s a lot to learn from pushing to do really hard things, and I think we, as a society, need more moonshots. Bringing it back around to the big policy of how we are going to create the future we want, it has to be that sense that we can tackle and succeed at seemingly impossible things, rather than, “Oh my God, the future’s just going to be shitty.”

Teller: One of the reasons that I do some public speaking is because I want to encourage people to feel like that. There is a sense that never gets fully articulated, but it’s clearly out there, that being that audacious is somebody else’s job and somebody else’s opportunity. The big companies tend to act like, “We don’t take risk. We don’t do really weird stuff that’s outside of our box by 100 miles. That’s what little companies do. They have nothing to lose.” The little companies are like, “That’s not us; the big companies should do it because they’ve got all the money. We don’t have the money to do something hard and weird.” The governments think, “We did that 50 years ago when it was the actual moonshot, but we just don’t have the money or the sticktoitiveness to do those things anymore.” Academia thinks they’re supposed to write the papers about it but not actually build anything.

Everyone thinks it’s not their job, and I think it’s exactly the opposite: everyone has it as their job and everyone has it as their opportunity. The pace of problems is picking up in the world, and we owe it to each other and to ourselves to pick up the pace of solving them, too. That’s going to require enthusiasm and audaciousness — not panic, but just a sense that we can get out of the incrementalism that sometimes tends to take over how problems get solved.

Image on article and category pages via Paul K on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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