On Tuesday at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York, Google X head of “moonshots” Astro Teller revealed that the company’s lab for often secret and sometimes weird projects, including Google Glass and self-driving cars, attempted to build a safe jetpack but eventually abandoned the project.
“The problem is that it is going to be so power inefficient. I just couldn’t live with that,” said Teller, explaining that the flying machine would have gone as little as a quarter mile on a gallon of gas while producing a roar as loud as a motorcycle.
The loud, gas-guzzling jetpack is one of many ideas that Google X has left behind. In fact, that’s sort of the idea. Teller said that he and his team drop “100 things a year, easily,” because it becomes clear early on in the development process that they don’t make sense. But the ethos behind Google X remains one of trying everything, even the insane ideas, to see what sticks and to help the company achieve one of its little publicized goals, which is apparently to save lives, to hear Teller tell it.
The projects that don’t get off the ground within Google X are rarely discussed, but in his many appearances over the past few years, Teller has started to share more about his team’s failures.
In a recent profile of Google X in Fast Company, other Googlers showed off a tiny hoverboard about the size of a quarter that they had managed to create using magnets and a small piece of graphite. But the team ran into practical problems in scaling the concept up to a usable size. Ultimately it was decided that overcoming those challenges would be hugely expensive and complicated, and that the potential social and economic benefits of a hoverboard couldn’t justify the cost.
Another far-out project that’s often been rumored to be under development at Google X is the notion of a space elevator. While it’s straight out of science fiction, it’s also as simple as it sounds — an elevator that runs from a station on earth to another station beyond our atmosphere, with the whole system anchored to a satellite in orbit on the far end of a super-strong cable thousands of miles up.
I attended a South By Southwest talk given by Teller last year at which he denied the space elevator rumors, but the Fast Company piece revealed that while Google X might not have ever worked on constructing an actual space elevator, they did take a serious look at the concept. Ultimately, it was decided that the only materials that could conceivably be strong enough to build that super-long tether out of — carbon nanotubes — weren’t quite ready for prime time since nobody has created strands longer than a meter so far.
In a similar manner, the Google X team has also thought deeply about the possibility of teleportation — like the Star Trek-style “beam me up” type of teleportation. Ultimately, it was concluded that the idea violates several laws of physics, but those discussions ultimately provided some insights into new possibilities for encryption technologies.
While the craziest Google X concepts, from space elevators to teleportation, were dismissed early, history has yet to judge the few that have made it out of X and into the public eye, like Google Glass, self-driving cars and Project Loon. All three have proved their concepts in the real world, but they’ve yet to prove practical for real people. Nonetheless, we’ll surely all continue to watch anxiously for the next wild moonshot.