Elon Musk is a “national treasure,” Google[x]‘s Astro Teller told an audience at South By Southwest today.
Teller, who holds the Google-y title “Captain of Moonshots,” spoke about the importance of moonshots and what differentiates innovators like Musk from the rest of us. Musk, who co-founded PayPal and has gone on to start electric car company Tesla and private space travel company SpaceX, as well financing Solar City, has achieved amazing things. But that’s not what’s most important about him, said Teller.
“It’s not just that he’s built some exciting and really meaningful, positive things,” said Teller. “That’s great. But he’s like a walking moonshot. He’s so audacious, it seems limitless.”
Teller, who wore a ponytail and a goatee and paced the stage throughout his presentation, urged the audience to start thinking like Musk, even if they don’t think they’re the smartest people in the room. “I’m willing to bet that lots of people in this room are as smart as he is,” Teller said. “It’s his bravery and creativity that makes him exceptional.”
Teller didn’t reveal anything new about what Google[x] – Google’s big-thinking experimental ideas lab that has so far produced self-driving cars and Google Glass – except to say that in about a month the company will reveal something it is working on related to “control systems.” Instead, he focused on pushing people to perspective-shifting thinking. That included assigning everyone some homework. “Ask yourself, ‘What would I work on if I knew ahead of time that I wouldn’t fail?’ Then ask yourself why wouldn’t you start that tomorrow.”
What matters about Musk is that he is “trying to be an Edison” and dream big while paying bills along the way, Teller said. However, he also stressed that moonshot thinkers shouldn’t worry about money when they are innovating. When you don’t think about money, you can instead concentrate on making a positive impact, he said. “If you’re adding huge amounts of value to the world, the money will come back and find you.” Later, he said that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were “serious as a heart attack” about that philosophy.
Teller also pointed to a little-known feature of Google Maps that was spun out of Google[x]. For several months now, he noted, the little blue dot within Google Maps that marks your location has worked even when you’re indoors, the result of an innovative solution that Google[x] team found when trying to think of different ways about geo. He said that getting that little blue dot’s accuracy an order of magnitude better will be hugely important. He spoke of going from an “error rate” of 25m to 2.5m, and even down to 25cm. Teller confessed to being hazy as to why it would matter so much, but was adamant that it would. “Each order of magnitude tends to matter,” he said.
Towards the end of the talk, Teller defended Google[x]‘s policy of operating in secrecy. Google[x] doesn’t talk about its projects not because it is hogging information or saving up something for a big reveal, making people line up behind a velvet rope in the meantime. The real reason, he said, is because external expectation creates pressure that ends creativity. “It’s because we’re going to fail a good bit of the time.”