Entering the “What if?” zone
ISSUE NO. 3 | MARCH 2021
Entering the “What if?” zone
When was the last time you asked a question that made people laugh out loud… and then hit an awkward silence as everyone thought, “Are you serious?”
How many brilliant ideas have died in that silence, or were never shared for fear of looking silly? Particularly in professional environments, we invest far too much energy in looking like we have all the answers — stifling our curiosity and creativity as a result.
Yet we need the bravery of laughable questions: they have the power to shift our perspective and point us to what’s possible. They open us up and propel us forward. They light up our hearts, not just our minds, and power us through long nights and naysayers. Just imagine how many questions led to the Mars Perseverance rover and the Covid vaccines — or how many times it would have been easier to stay quiet or give up.
Next time you find yourself getting sucked into everyday blah thinking, try a question — and let it drive for awhile. An easy place to start: “What if…” Don’t just ponder for a minute and put it away — try asking it over and over for 10 or 15 minutes, and see what weird and wonderful places it takes you. We’ve just launched a new game to help; in this latest edition, you’ll find that plus some of the wild questions X has been exploring.
As always, our newsletter is an evolving experiment, and we want to hear from you! If you have any feedback, share at x-newsletter-feedback@x.team.
Courtney Hohne
Editor & Storyteller for Moonshots
SCT. 01–A Factory stories 1: Start with the question
SCT. 01–B Factory stories 2: A game of radical thinking
SCT. 02 The What If? files: Project Maya
SCT. 03 News from X
SCT. 04 Career Spotlight
Start with the question
Like the rest of the world, Xers turned to their garages and kitchen tables to work when the pandemic struck — but this didn’t stop us asking “What if?” Catch a glimpse of crabs doing pushups and lightning bolts swimming laps in this new animation fresh from the Factory that shares some of the "What ifs" various teams at X are exploring. Read more in this blogpost.
Watch the video
Read the blogpost
A game of radical thinking
How do you limber up those moonshot muscles and get yourself into an expansive, anything-goes mindset? It can be surprisingly hard to shut off that nagging voice in your head that says “That’s silly,” or "That’ll never work!" Even the bravest of brainstormers can use a helping hand to get their ideas flowing — particularly the ones on the bonkers end of the scale.
Moonshots! is a game designed to help you with just that. It’s inspired by X’s Rapid Evaluation team, whose “Bad Idea Brainstorms” help Xers get comfortable with sharing their weirdest ideas. The game works by pairing randomly-chosen technologies with big problems, and it’s up to you to come up with a solution that connects them — no matter how bizarre.
Heads up: most of your ideas will be bad, and that’s the point! The outcome isn’t what’s important: it’s about seeing what your inner mad scientist comes up with. The cousin of a bad idea may well be a good idea, so you’ve gotta power through the awkwardness to find it. That’s why we recommend playing with a friend or few to share the laughs… and then bring all that creative energy over to the big problems that you care about.
Let us know what you come up with — share your wildest ideas on social and tag @theteamatx!
Play the game here
Project Maya
The reality of the innovation process is that most of X’s explorations don’t work out. Our archives are littered with ideas that lasted anywhere from a few hours to a few years. We want to share things we’ve learned in case they inspire someone else to come up with something even better.
The moonshot
What if your skin could be used as a sensor for your body's health?
Huge problem
Skin is one of the most important immune system components, providing a physical and chemical barrier between our body and the outside world. Skin health can tell us a lot about our overall health; for example, jaundice is an early sign of liver stress, while the oxygen level of our skin can be an indicator for heart health. Today, the way we learn more about our skin and health is with biopsies. These can be invasive, require expert intervention, and are often done reactively, once the problem has already manifested.
Radical solution
A tricorder-inspired device that would use different light wavelengths to investigate skin health indicators — like structural breakdown, inflammation, discoloration — without chemicals or biological or physical interventions. Machine learning could track patterns and develop personalized preventative measures based on the scan’s results.
Breakthrough technology
A machine that could be used at home without an expert to non-invasively assess skin. The prototype machine (pictured above) combined different technologies like the light spectrum (red, green and blue lightwaves, which penetrate skin at different depths to measure thickness), optical sensors to gather data, ML models to understand the data, and biochemical solutions.
Cause of death
One of the trickiest parts of creating moonshots is deciding which part of the problem to focus on (that’s why we try to "tackle the monkey first"). For their moonshot to work, the Maya team had to tackle several high-risk, interconnected, hard-to-know-where-to-start dimensions to the problem, so they were going to have to do a lot of work in different areas before they could even get a sense of when and whether they were making progress — and so, they decided to end the project.
Loon’s final flight
After nine years surfing the stratospheric winds, Loon’s time as a company has come to an end. Read more from Astro Teller here and Loon’s Alastair Westgarth here. X is still committed to solving the problem of connectivity: some of Loon’s technology, like the high bandwidth optical communication links that beamed a connection between balloons, lives on in Project Taara.
From the Atlantic to Arizona
Project Tidal, which is currently testing its sustainable fish farming technologies off the coast of Norway, was featured in GreenBiz’s 2021 State of Green Business Report — you can read more about their work here. Meanwhile, on the border of Mexico and Arizona, former X project Delta is tackling the problems of food waste and insecurity.
Supercharging Malta and Dandelion
Bill Gates-founded Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) is leading the charge on a new round of investments in climate-focused technologies — with former X projects Malta raising a $50M round and Dandelion Energy raising a $30M round. Malta CEO Ramya Swaminathan explained to Fortune why Malta’s technology can help the shift to renewable energy. On Morning Brew’s Business Casual podcast, Dandelion cofounder Kathy Hannun explained how moonshot ideas come to life.
Calling all moonshot-takers!
We’re looking for inventors, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs who want to find radical solutions to the world’s most stubborn problems.
+ Moonshot storyteller for the Factory
+ Lead machine learning software engineer for an early stage project
+ Technical program manager for the Everyday Robot Project
Explore careers at X
X is a moonshot factory. We’re an eclectic group of inventors and entrepreneurs who build and launch breakthrough technologies that aim to improve the lives of millions, even billions, of people and create large, sustainable businesses along the way. Our goal: 10x impact on the world’s most intractable problems, not just 10% improvement. X is a division of Google parent company Alphabet. Visit us at x.company.
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