- Astro Teller, "Captain of Moonshots" and leader of Alphabet research and development arm X, chats about how widening internet access through Project Loon can help the poorest people in the world and smart glasses like Google Glass can be used best in professional settings.
- "We believe that doing good for the world and making thriving businesses for Alphabet are not only not at odds with each other, they're actively well-aligned," Teller said.
- Silicon Valley has a bro problem, but the tech industry and Alphabet are held to a "higher standard," Teller said.
Many of Google parent company Alphabet's newest innovations come out of its secretive research-and-development company X.
Ventures at X, which previously was known as Google [X], include global internet access division Project Loon, its self-driving car Waymo, smart glasses Google Glass, and its delivery drone service Project Wing. The company calls itself a "moonshot factory" because it works on technologies to solve some of the world's biggest problems.
CNBC spoke with X's "Captain of Moonshots" and leader Dr. Astro Teller at the 2017 Goalkeepers event in New York to get updates on X's projects, his thoughts on Silicon Valley's culture and the need for diversity, and what he really thinks of the HBO show "Silicon Valley."
How can global internet access help the most impoverished people in the world?
When an individual or a group of farmers goes from not having the internet to having the internet, crop yields go up, based on U.N. data. They don't always go up as high as 50 percent, but that's not uncommon. That's an incredible boost in the productivity and livelihood for these people.
If you don't have mobile banking, how are you going to set up and run a business? In lots of places around the world, mobile banking is increasingly the only mechanism for interacting in large cities. We can't ask the developing world to be entrepreneurs. They don't have the basic tools.
We heard reports X was investing in satellite data and other technologies, but is Project Loon going to be your main mechanism to provide global internet access?
It is right now. The future is uncertain, and I'm not being cute about that. The way that we try to do things is we run experiments. We're right some of the time, and we're wrong most of the time. Having tried a bunch of things, stratosphere balloons was the best way that we can see to try and bring the internet to the 4 billion people in the planet that don't have it.
A lot of tech companies have their own "moonshot" factories or innovation labs. What sets X apart?
I'm not sure we need to set ourselves apart. I've been preaching moonshot taking for long enough and begging other groups to start their own moonshot factories. We're not going to run out of creative ways of solving world problems. If there's another group that you think is a moonshot factory, that's an actively good thing — sincerely.
What would you say would be the point of X?
X's goal is to create new businesses for Alphabet, and we believe that doing good for the world and making thriving businesses for Alphabet are not only not at odds with each other, they're actively well-aligned. The world gets all this benefit, we have a thriving business, and we give that to Alphabet. That seems like a good deal for us, and that seems like a good deal for Alphabet — and a good deal for the world.
You recently re-acquired Google Glass . What's next?
The market communicated to us over the last couple of years the place that people are most ready for [Google Glass] is in professional settings. That can be classic office work kind of stuff like a doctor or a nurse. It can be on an oil rig, and it can be anything in between, people who work in warehouses or fixing airplanes. There's an incredible amount of work done around the world where people want access to lots of information. They want to be able to communicate hands-free while they're doing other things. They want to be able to document what they're doing. Google Glass is great for that.
Imagine if I'm working — whether it's on a patient or an airplane — and someone can watch from my perspective what I'm doing and show me how to do it. Maybe I can get a specialist on the line. Maybe I'm an apprentice and people are checking in on me and giving me advice. You couldn't just naturally do that with your phone.
The social issues with Google Glass was a good learning experiment. That turns out, at least for the moment, that's not to be the right place for Glass to grow.
If you're going the professional route, it seems like it's going to be expensive.
You would have to ask the companies, not us, whether they find it expensive. I think they find it incredibly worth it.
You guys are working on a self-driving car. Do people have anything to fear now that many tasks will be automated?
There are jobs that are going to go away. Lots of new jobs will appear. That's happened every single time new technologies have come on the scene.
Every time in the past we stepped up our education game, but I think we're really letting our society down this time. We have an education crisis. New jobs will increasingly be for those people who can operate computers and robots. It will mean higher productivity work and probably for many people more interesting work, but only if we get them the training necessary. For the kids who are growing up in this country and for many adults, if we do not address those education issues then there will be something to worry about.
Mark Cuban said he thinks the blue-collar job of the future . Do you agree?
I think the blue-collar job of today and maybe for the next 10 to 20 years is programming. It's something that you can do by the time you're 18 to 20 years old. You don't need a full college degree in order to do it. You can get paid very well to do it. Even if there were twice as many programmers in the world as there are today there still would be openings around the world for computer programmers.
What's up with Project Wing, X's delivery drone project?
We're doing some work in Australia right now, but we've done a bunch of tests with NASA and the FAA here in the United States. We're going to continue to do more flights every day, fly longer distances. We're working on everything from the safety of the plane to making it quieter.
Right now there's this perception of bro culture in the tech industry. Google has dealt with some of these issues recently. Where do you stand on this?
Silicon Valley has a problem. I know that X recognizes the problem. We still have work to do at X, but I think we're better than a lot of Silicon Valley. And we're continuing to work on it. I would like to think all of Silicon Valley is working on it.
While Silicon Valley has a bro culture — I'm not saying it does not — Silicon Valley did not invent the machismo work culture. It's everywhere. I think what's interesting is that Silicon Valley and some companies like Alphabet are held to a higher standard. We're working incredibly hard to live up on a whole bunch of fronts. I think Alphabet is doing pretty well. I hope that Silicon Valley can end up being a good example of how to fix this problem.
How is X more advanced when it comes to addressing gender inequality in the workplace?
I'm probably the wrong person to ask. You should ask some of the women at X, but I would like to think we are very focused on diversity.
If you are building a moonshot factory, the first thing you would be obsessed with is getting diverse perspectives in the building. That's not code just for gender or color of skin, but I want you to think different from me. If you think the same as me, how are we going to find creative new solutions? Sometimes that means "Let's make sure we have lots of women as well as men, that we have people from different ethnic backgrounds." It also means like, "Hey there are no veterans in this conversation." Or "Look, this entire team doesn't have but two people on it that grew up outside the United States. That's not okay."
I know a lot of the public's perception of Silicon Valley has been influenced by the HBO show "Silicon Valley." Is it accurate?
You know that's satire, right? It's a joke. Obviously Silicon Valley overall is not like that show. At the same time, that show is funny because there's important kernels of truth in it. It's an exaggeration, a caricature of Silicon Valley. That's sort of like saying "Ally McBeal" is an accurate representation of a law firm. At the same time, you might learn something about a law firm by watching "Ally McBeal." You may at least pick up some of the buzzwords, jokes or tensions that may happen around Silicon Valley if you watch the show.
There was a report you were working with the "Silicon Valley" showrunners and had a disagreement. Is that true? (Note: The New Yorker wrote in a profile of showrunners Mike Judge and Alec Berg that Teller angrily rollerbladed out of a meeting with them because he felt they were making fun of the work X was doing.)
I was working with the writers. I did not have a disagreement with them. I think there was somebody who was cranky, but we're very friendly. (Teller has been on advertisements for the show, including an April Fools' Day video.)
Where do we still need innovation in the tech space?
I don't think we need any innovation in the tech space. The world doesn't need technology. The world needs to have its problems solved. I think the best parts of Silicon Valley are people who are obsessed with solving the problems not obsessed with making technology. There's so many problems: internet access; logistics and delivery of goods — the Wing project; solving for a whole range of transportation issues — this is Waymo. These all describe themselves by the problem they are solving. Loon isn't a balloon project. It's an access project. It just happens to be using balloons.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.