Radical creativity, uncertainty-surfing & the weird universe
Innovating while adapting: let’s do this
2020 flipped everything upside down, inflicting widespread pain and revealing bedrock assumptions and systems to be brittle and flawed. Yet, despite the tumult, the year has shown us where there’s still hope and opportunity to drive radical, positive, lasting change.
We know it’s hard to be optimistic, brave and determined while the world feels so unmoored. At X, we feel it too, and we want to share some of our methods for innovating while adapting to strange times. That’s what this new quarterly newsletter is designed for: sharing what we’ve learned from 10 years of moonshot-taking so we can all contribute to building a 10x better future.
Much of our advice boils down to this: keep focused on the long term, stop pretending anyone can know the answers in advance, silence the voices telling us what we’re “supposed to do,” and let the wild ideas rip. Radical creativity can thrive in these conditions, whether you’re in the class of 2020 or have many miles on your tires.
In this first edition, we’ll take you behind the scenes of X’s “Design Kitchen” prototyping lab. We’ll also share how we try to be better forecasters when, as Xer Phil Watson says, “the weirdness of the universe is stronger than our minds are willing to tolerate.”
It doesn’t have to be “someone else’s job” to come up with the ideas that change the world for the better. How about you, or me, or us? Why not? Above all, let’s not give in to the gravitational pull back toward “normal,” just because we know how normal works and miss how it feels. The status quo wasn’t working well in ways we hadn’t been able, or weren’t willing, to see. Let’s grab this opportunity to try new things.
Enjoy the read, and please let me know at x-newsletter-feedback@x.team how we can make future editions useful for you. And if you like what’s here, please share with other moonshot-minded souls.
Courtney Hohne
Editor & Storyteller for Moonshots
SCT. 01-A Factory Stories 1 / Anything that answers a question
SCT. 01-B Factory Stories 2 / How [not] to predict the future
SCT. 02 The What If? Files / Silent Speech
SCT. 03 News from X
SCT. 04 Careers
Anything that answers a question
The Design Kitchen is X’s prototyping and fabrication lab. It’s run by a multidisciplinary team of engineers, designers, prototypers, fabricators, and “general weirdos” — the go-to team for projects at X that want to turn radical dreams into reality. In this video, we caught up with two Xers: Design Kitchen lead and former special effects person Joseph Sargent, whose credits include Mythbusters, Iron Man, and Avengers, and X project lead Kathryn Zealand. They’ll tell you how to bring a prototyping mindset to your hardest problems — even when you’re stuck at home. You’ll also get some glimpses of one of X’s newest moonshots, “SmartyPants,” to help the elderly and others with mobility challenges.
Watch the video
How [not] to predict the future
Building a moonshot is about looking out beyond the horizon of what’s possible, and trying to see what’s next. This means making certain assumptions about what the future looks like — but how do you make these assumptions, and how can you be sure they’re leading you in the right direction?
We sat down with X’s Phil Watson to learn just that. Currently leading a secret investigation of his own, Phil is a creative scientist, inventor, and organizational leader who previously ran X’s Rapid Evaluation team, which is tasked with repeatedly creating new X projects. From his time at X and the renowned 3M, Phil has learned a thing or two about the uncertainty of the innovation process. In this interview, he shares how (not) to predict the future — and why you should try to fall in love with being wrong.
Read the interview
Silent Speech
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 killed in case they inspire someone else to come up with something even better.
“Shhh!” Silent Speech (2019)
The moonshot:
What if you could communicate by using your voice — without speaking out loud?
Huge problem:
We rely heavily on our computers and smartphones, but in many situations they can be difficult to use or even dangerous, causing problems like distracted driving. Voice-activated technology helps somewhat, but it can be socially awkward or ineffective in crowded, loud environments. And it isn’t an option for people who may not be able to speak or are deaf or hard of hearing.
Radical solution:
A ‘voiceless’ voice-controller: a wearable device that could ‘lip-read’ and translate what it sees into ‘silent speech,’ making it possible to command a computer or other machine more easily in more situations.
Breakthrough technology:
Sensor fusion to detect movement of the lips and mouth and machine learning algorithms to translate these movements into words. To test this, we built prototypes that looked like helmets.
Cause of death:
We couldn’t get the word recognition error rate low enough. We could have delivered some basic functionality by limiting the helmet’s scope to, say, 50 commands, but it would only have broad usefulness if people could speak naturally and conversationally. That would have required 99% comprehension of mouthed words. That’s not currently achievable with the technology. One key difficulty: the difficulty of interpreting phonemes, or speech sound units, that sound different but look the same when mouthed -- like b and p.
Sharing a decade of moonshot thinking
WIRED magazine went deep into our secret lab to share how X has evolved over ten years. Our own Tips for Unleashing Radical Creativity and “This is X” film capture what we’ve learned over a decade. And here’s how we’re learning to innovate at home — with some inspiration from Monsieur Remy le Rat.
Fresh ideas to feed the planet
Back in March, we unveiled Tidal, a moonshot to protect the ocean and preserve its ability to support life and feed humanity sustainably. And on International Biological Diversity Day, Dr. Elliott Grant — who leads Mineral, our computational agriculture project — shared how his team is developing tools that offer growers insight into what’s happening in their fields, right down to the individual plant.
Encouraging others to continue Makani’s wind energy mission
While Makani’s 13-year journey came to an end earlier this year, we published what they learned in their technical development as the Energy Kite collection; while former Chief Engineer Paula Echeverri, now working on our Everyday Robots Project, sat down with IEEE to chat all things airborne wind.
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.
+ Technical Lead for Tidal, a moonshot in ocean health
+ Technical Lead for a moonshot helping people with mobility challenges
+ Machine Learning Software Engineer for a moonshot in life sciences
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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