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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Google Shoots the Moon, Solves for X

Can Google save the world?

  • February 7, 2012

Among the headlines trumpeting Google’s new TED-style project, my favorite has to be this one, courtesy of DiscoveryNews: “Google’s ‘Solve for X’ Wants to End World Problems.” Ending world problems: sounds nice, doesn’t it? And not at all ambitious.

What exactly is Solve for X? Google does a good job explaining it on its blog: essentially, it’s a conference series that will spotlight what Google calls “technology moonshots.” Aim high, could be Solve for X’s motto. “Moonshots live in the gray area between audacious projects and pure science fiction; they are 10x improvement, not 10%,” writes Google.

Google already held its inaugural event last week, in the CordeValle resort in San Martin, California, per the BBC; it plans to hold more such conferences “a few times a year.” This looks like something Google’s been planning to launch for a while; it already has up a fairly elaborate site, wesolveforx.com, as well as a YouTube channel dedicated to the project.

Those videos are well worth clicking through; one of my favorites is this one below with novelist Neal Stephenson, author of “The Baroque Cycle,” on “getting big stuff done.” In the past, the sheer amount of technological change, and much of the concomitant devastation wrought on the environment, had put Stephenson off of the idea of excessive technological process. But in recent years, and particularly after the Fukushima disaster, he says, he’s come around to the view that “the threat now has become not too much innovation, but not enough innovation.”

In its own post, written by Astro Teller and Megan Smith, Google highlights a few talks in particular, including Mary Lou Jepsen’s on literally taking pictures of the mind’s eye, and Rob McGinnis’s on bringing freshwater to the world for one tenth of the energy currently expended.

Though the letter “x” is vaguely evocative of the X Prize, which has similarly radical ambitions, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that Google is putting up prize money or grant money to implement any of the “solutions for x.” The currency at these talks is ideas rather than dollars. One of the attendees at the kick-off talks called it “a great brain spa, like TED, but much more tech-intense,” in an e-mail to Mashable.

Spoilsport, party-pooper, and general wet blanket that I am, I’d like to mention that breakthroughs, in any field, tend to be rare.  This is a problem science journalists often face, in fact: how to make incremental change sexy. Technological revolutions do come, though, and breakthroughs, while rare, do happen. It never hurts to think big–and as a wise man once said, if you shoot the moon, you’re bound at least to land on the roof.

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