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How To Make Moonshots 112

An anonymous reader writes Google Glass failed. Its self-driving cars might change the world. At Google[x], pursuing the biggest, craziest projects means getting comfortable with failure — and embarrassment. Astro Teller, who leads Google's experimental lab Google[x], embraces the idea that failing fast is a way to learn even faster. "Larry Page told me, a little over two years ago, that he wanted to see us crash at least five of these scale versions of the energy kite. Obviously he wants us to be safe and we work very hard to be safe in everything that we do. What he meant by that was that he wanted to see us push ourselves to learn as fast as possible and though the learning from the crashing itself would be close to zero, he was pointing out that if you aren't failing, if you aren't breaking your experimental equipment at least occasionally, you could be learning faster."
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How To Make Moonshots

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    I don't see how you'll avoid the minefield that is considered "prior art" if you're just enthusiastically fucking around.

    • You: I'm going to make this great new Item!
      Me: Alright, first we need to sort through the 7,000 Patients that may conflict with your Item.
      You: Never mind, I'll just focus on something else.
      Me: You can't, Robots do everything else now.

  • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Wednesday March 18, 2015 @08:06PM (#49288269)
    ...if you have the financial resources to afford to crash and burn. For most of us there's a significant incubation period that might even require profitability before we can afford to push past the point of safety or reliability and dial it back.
    • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Wednesday March 18, 2015 @08:10PM (#49288289) Homepage Journal

      For most of us there's a significant incubation period that might even require profitability before we can afford to push past the point of safety or reliability and dial it back.

      That's a sign that your aspirations are too aspirational. Failure is a common consequence of attempting to do things, and if you can't afford to fail, you're betting against the odds.

      • Yup.

        In order that one might achieve proficiency in his chosen profession someday, a step that cannot be omitted involves failing, occasionally spectacularly, in every imaginable way.

      • by rtb61 ( 674572 ) on Wednesday March 18, 2015 @11:28PM (#49289187) Homepage

        Your comment is a sign you have no idea at all what is really going on. Google tech indulgences and not empty tech indulgences, they are a modern marketing technique. They create a impression about the kind of company Google is, well, at least pretends to be and the kind of expertise they have, well at least pretends they have and each and every fucking single time they make a tech announcement or tech update or just randomly waffle on about the tech stuff they are doing, the press dutifully picks it up and free advertises Google to the world.

        Now you can either just burn money on advertising like M$ do, emptily B$ about features that disappear or make greatly exaggerated claims about their products or you can really be pretty cunning and sneaky, invest in high risk tech research that the worlds press will report on and get tons and tons of free advertising and have a chance of a big payout for that tech research (just leaving a 'positive impression about your company and products').

        At a guess their investment in tech research is generating something like about like between $3 to $5 of free advertising for each dollar invested in research and depending upon the announcement cycle and interest it is up to $10 and maybe as high as $100 on occasions. LIKE RIGHT FUCKING NOW

        • by Anonymous Coward

          I'm wondering if it's more of a tax strategy.

    • Everyone can afford to fail if they understand their own situation well enough. Google is not ignoring profitability. Note that they're not stupid enough to radically experiment with and risk their core search and advertisement business. Instead, they take small, careful, incremental steps in order to continue improving them over time, just like any other reasonable company does with their core products.

      All their moonshots are high-risk, high-return gambles that they invest a *portion* of their profits i

    • by plover ( 150551 )

      I heard a great quote from a filmmaker who encouraged his cameramen to take big risks: "If you're going to soar with the eagles, you can't expect to crap like a canary."

      They shot mountains of unusable trivial footage, which cost them a ton of cash. But they also produced some spectacular, memorable films, which catapulted them and their clients to huge popular success. He realized that he had to risk his business to succeed, and he won. Not everyone who takes those kinds of risks succeeds, but companies tha

    • by Bogtha ( 906264 )

      ...if you have the financial resources to afford to crash and burn

      That's implied in the name "moonshot". If budget is a constraining factor, then what you're attempting isn't a moonshot, but standard R&D. It's the difference between a Boeing exec. deciding to fund the development of a better plane and JFK saying "get us to the moon no matter what".

  • by BarbaraHudson ( 3785311 ) <barbarahudson&gmail,com> on Wednesday March 18, 2015 @08:12PM (#49288299) Journal

    2 oz Gin
    3 oz Clam Juice
    1 dash Tabasco

    They could have just googled for it :-)

  • Ridiculous (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sexconker ( 1179573 ) on Wednesday March 18, 2015 @08:15PM (#49288329)

    This is ridiculous, upbeat bullshit intended to convince people that Google is a positive, dynamic, agile, bleeding-edge, open, otherbuzzwords place to work.

    You learn no more from failure than you learn from success. There are many ways to fail and few ways to succeed, thus it is better to learn what to do than what not to do. Failure simply slaps people upside the head and makes them think before trying again. Failure is a learning experience if you didn't plan ahead in the first place. Further, there are many scenarios where failing is not an option (e.g., medical, military, and space ventures). Failure in these areas is seen as a shameful mark worthy of criticism, lawsuits, retaliation, etc. more than it is a learning experience.

    If Google wants to drive people's cars around or float massive objects above their heads they better not be prancing about on Unicorn Rainbow "Failure is Okay" Island.

    • Re:Ridiculous (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Rich0 ( 548339 ) on Wednesday March 18, 2015 @08:44PM (#49288499) Homepage

      You learn no more from failure than you learn from success. There are many ways to fail and few ways to succeed, thus it is better to learn what to do than what not to do.

      Sure, but the point is that you often can't do the one without the other. Fear of failure tends to cause companies to just stick with what they already do well. That means they basically aren't learning anything at all.

      Of course companies should fund the projects that they think are most likely to become profitable. They'll still fail at some of them, and willingness to embrace that increases the odds that they'll come up with something truly innovative.

      • by Euler ( 31942 )

        ..and many companies burn through their capital on their 3rd attempt at failure. Failure isn't the goal. Forward progress is the goal. Recognizing failure or impasse quickly and cutting losses is the goal.

        Sometimes doing nothing is a perfectly good option if there isn't a viable path given the current state of technology, market demand, and capital available. Timing is everything.

        • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

          ..and many companies burn through their capital on their 3rd attempt at failure. Failure isn't the goal. Forward progress is the goal. Recognizing failure or impasse quickly and cutting losses is the goal.

          Isn't that basically the whole point of the article? Google tries new things, and abandons them if they don't work out.

    • Re:Ridiculous (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Rinikusu ( 28164 ) on Wednesday March 18, 2015 @08:48PM (#49288519)

      A boy once asked a successful businessman what makes a man successful?

      "Good decisions, my boy, good decisions!"

      The boy thought for a moment and then asked how does a man learn how to make good decision?

      "Bad decisions, my boy, bad decision."

      I've found in life life I learn more from my mistakes than my successes. Similar to how poker players can rarely tell you about all the pots they've won, it's the big ones they lost that stand out in their minds.

      Feel free to change gender of the examples. It doesn't change the message.

    • Re:Ridiculous (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Wednesday March 18, 2015 @08:49PM (#49288523) Homepage Journal

      You learn no more from failure than you learn from success. There are many ways to fail and few ways to succeed, thus it is better to learn what to do than what not to do.

      This is a rational argument applied to the real world, and it doesn't hold true. Rational arguments are almost *never* true when applied to the real world, unless they start from a fundamental model and build up. (And in that case you can make testable predictions.)

      Eighty percent of first businesses fail, but only 20% of *second* businesses fail, and it's not because people don't try to do it right the first time.

      Both Thomas Edison and [head of IBM] Thomas J. Watson [wikipedia.org] have extensive experience in this, and both have written positions on the subject. When someone approached Watson and asked "how can I increase my success rate", he responded "double your failure rate" [brainyquote.com]. When someone asked Edison how he could continue researching the electric light bulb after failing 5,000 times, he replied "I haven't failed 5,000 times, I know 5,000 ways that won't work" (source [finsecurity.com]).

      The rational argument fails when it's applied to the risk/reward formulation. Each time you fail you lose 1x the value of the experiment, but each time you succeed you regain 50x the value of the experiment in profit.

      The mantra in the IT world is "fail fast, fail often", which reflects the risk-reward equation very well. It takes almost nothing to set up a website showing your idea to the world, and almost nothing to shutter it 6 months later.

      But once in awhile, that idea becomes popular and profitable and you can recoup your investment many times over. That's why people should fail; or rather, not be afraid of failure.

      Not because of any rationalization, but because it's historically the route to success.

      • Plus, "If you don't fail at least 90 percent of the time, you're not aiming high enough."
      • Re:Ridiculous (Score:4, Insightful)

        by orlanz ( 882574 ) on Wednesday March 18, 2015 @10:10PM (#49288895)

        Excellent post. Posting to highlight a point.

        "fail FAST, fail often"

        Most businesses fail to do the first part and screw up the entire equation. Most bankruptcies, going out of business, bubbles, and mismanagement isn't because of failure. Its the lack of recognition of failure and continued operations that end up eating all the resources and erases the reward altogether.

        If you don't fail fast, you will fail once, period.

      • by Euler ( 31942 )

        That's why people should fail; or rather, not be afraid of failure.

        That is the key element. People take the failure part too literally as a measure of success. Failure may occur. Everyone has to do their own math on the risk/reward. There is no guarantee of the big payout for the 1 in 50 success rate.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by khallow ( 566160 )

      There are many ways to fail and few ways to succeed, thus it is better to learn what to do than what not to do. Failure simply slaps people upside the head and makes them think before trying again. Failure is a learning experience if you didn't plan ahead in the first place.

      Here's the rub. You can never plan ahead enough to eliminate failure. Sometimes the cost of planning is not worth the cost of the failure you avoid.

      Further, there are many scenarios where failing is not an option (e.g., medical, military, and space ventures). Failure in these areas is seen as a shameful mark worthy of criticism, lawsuits, retaliation, etc. more than it is a learning experience.

      Not even a little bit. Failure happens all the time in medicine, military, and space ventures. It doesn't even make sense to assume that these areas where failure is or should be rare. For example, you will eventually die, which indicates that no matter how good or competent medical care is, it will always fail in the end. Military ventures are usually chock ful

      • Here's the rub. You can never plan ahead enough to eliminate failure. Sometimes the cost of planning is not worth the cost of the failure you avoid.

        Exactly. I have been involved in many projects that spend so much time in the planning stage, that by the time we are ready to move forward, the people supporting the project are gone and all traction dissolved. Then in a year or two, the exact same project starts up again - in the planning stage.

    • There are many ways to fail and few ways to succeed, thus it is better to learn what to do than what not to do.

      Except by learning only by succeeding you can be left in the situation where you don't understand why you are succeeding. This means that you have a weak base to refine and expand your base because you don't know how you got where you are.

    • Actually, they better be, no they need to be prancing about on "Failure is okay" island as hard and frequently as they can. Crash it, burn it, boil it in glue. Because that way, they find out all the ways to STOP THAT FROM HAPPENING.

      That way, when they do get out into rough, tough "Failure is not an option" land, they won't have to spend nearly as much on nasty expensive lobbyists and politicians to make their little faux pas [wikipedia.org] go away.
    • by Euler ( 31942 )

      100% agree. This 'fail fast' crap is extremely narrow-minded. We didn't get to the moon by failing fast. We got to the moon by trying like hell to get it right. Failing faster would have led to 100 different aborted attempts at the first sign of trouble in a design. All the approaches had many failure modes that had to be worked through diligently. At what point do you declare failure vs. work through a problem?

      • Failing on the drawing board is faster (and cheaper) than failing at the prototype stage, which is faster (and cheaper and kills fewer people) then failing when it's in active service.

        That's the point.

        • by Euler ( 31942 )

          I suppose it comes down to semantics of words.

          To me, failure means "Failure to meet project goals" that is always bad. Money runs out, timelines slip, safety is compromised, etc.

          It sounds like fail-fast means: "quickly write off solutions that are unworkable" To most engineers, that is just a feasibility study. Granted, the faster and cheaper you can write off a truly bad solution, the better off you are. Breaking a few prototype is not a failure as long as that was considered in the project budget. B

      • 100% agree. This 'fail fast' crap is extremely narrow-minded. We didn't get to the moon by failing fast. We got to the moon by trying like hell to get it right. Failing faster would have led to 100 different aborted attempts at the first sign of trouble in a design. All the approaches had many failure modes that had to be worked through diligently. At what point do you declare failure vs. work through a problem?

        You need to go study the Apollo missions in more detail. And how about chasing down NASA footage of the spectacular rocket fails from the late 50's / early 60's. NASA had monumental failures whilst chasing the moon.

        Let's not forget Apollo 1.

        Yes, NASA tried really hard to get it right. And when reality interfered with those plans, they figured out where their expectations didn't work out, learned and moved on (SA1 .. SA5; AS101 .. AS105; AS201 .. AS203; Apollo 4 .. Apollo 6). Then they staged the moon sh

        • by Euler ( 31942 )

          Yes these are really good points. Certainly they did abort more than 100 different bad ideas.

          There is a really good series "From Earth to the Moon." What I love is how much people were able to accomplish without email, CAD, collaboration apps, etc. It is hard enough to coordinate 10 engineers even with modern technology. You really get a sense of the planning involved from 1961 to 1969 and beyond. They had an overall plan and were determined not to fail their primary mission, and there were big questio

    • by N1AK ( 864906 )

      Further, there are many scenarios where failing is not an option (e.g., medical, military, and space ventures).

      Of course it is. It makes clear in the summary they are talking about failure during the experimental stage, not in production products. You think Lockhead, Pfizer, SpaceX never, ever, have a failure during the design or testing phases? Hell, military history is littered with thousands of weapons, planes, other tech, that never made it to production.

      The article never suggested that they should f

  • It should be "How to Make Segways"
  • by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Wednesday March 18, 2015 @08:29PM (#49288403) Homepage Journal

    Google glass failed, but I suspect that they allowed it to fail due to lack of persistent development.

    The way most people work is that they try something, it doesn't work, and they give up. I've heard lots of things like "I can't learn to whistle, I've tried" and "I tried that, but it didn't work". Mostly it's amateurs building stuff and giving up on the first try: "I put the circuit together and it didn't work", or "I tried to build a spice rack for Marge, but it turned out awful".

    If you really want to make something, you have to be prepared to throw the first one out and start over. If the circuit doesn't work, find out *why* it didn't work and fix it. If your spice rack is awful, spend some time on YouTube looking at proper technique, then spend some time using the router (or table saw, or whatnot) with pieces of scrap until you get the hang of it. Then start the project over.

    Google glass could have been popular if they noted the feedback and piloted the project into more popular waters. For example:

    1) A flip-down cover for the camera, so you can interact with people and they know you aren't recording them
    2) A less restrictive interface, so that developers can show anything instead of storyboard images like a viewmaster. IOW, a direct graphical interface.
    3) a less expensive device (costs $150 to make, $1500 to buy). (Note: Cell phones have largely the same functionality and don't cost $1500)

    Rather than fix the problems, they decided to just let it die. Maybe they did market analysis and thought that it would never sell in any form, but I really doubt they went that far.

    • This is what stalled Google Glass, the same thing that killed Nokia as a phone company. Google chose the wrong ARM SoC [arstechnica.com]

      Support from the SoC vendor is the first step in getting an update out the door, and you'll see many phones' support lifecycles cut short thanks to the likes of Texas Instruments and Nvidia. The Galaxy Nexus used a Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 SoC. TI quit the smartphone business in 2012, leaving Google's flagship without support for KitKat. The only device we've seen update to KitKat withou

    • by N1AK ( 864906 )
      Google glass isn't a spice rack, moonshots aren't equivalent to fudging together a basic circuit. Those analogies make it appear that you think developing new high-tech products for categories that don't is equivalent to building a basic wooden item that millions have done before; it obviously isn't and it undermines any credibility the rest of your post may have had.
  • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Wednesday March 18, 2015 @08:42PM (#49288485)

    At first when I read about championing failure as a path to success, I thought they were talking about Larry Ellison.

    It explained so much about the quality of Oracle.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Quantum computers, nuclear fusion and a manned expedition to Mars are moonshots. This is just a novelty. Please don't cheapen the actual lunar landings by overusing "moonshot" for what is essentially just regular R&D.

  • Easy. Do you have a mirror?
  • It always seems like these guys are missing something. Bell Labs had this figured out. Arguably, IBM has done a better job of this in recent decades. I get the impression the people at Google just kind of heard about a bunch of failed DARPA projects and decided to try and fix them up. Self driving cars, enhanced reality headsets, balloon based networks, nanoparticle diagnostics, jetpacks, neural network enhanced computer vision... all legacy military development projects... all very cool, but not really

    • by Anonymous Coward

      You know what they're missing? For the most part... domain experience. This is also known as "I'm A Super Smart IT Guy" disease - nerds who are real virtuosos with a computer think that because they can write software, they know everything about the universe, and can waltz into a decades- or centuries-old area of research and shake the world with their fresh insights.

      The reality is that the experts who have been plugging away at these problems for - literally - decades have already considered and discarde

      • You have a point. On the other hand, many approaches that WERE impractical 10 or 20 years ago are quite practical now. Consider any solution that in involves a modern computer. Twenty years ago, you'd need a cluster of computers to do what can now be done on a cheap prepaid phone. Any solution to an individual's daily hassles that involves a multi-Ghz processor was written off as impractical. Now, there's an app for that.

        Then there are all of the building-blocks that have become available. Facial re

  • "and though the learning from the crashing itself would be close to zero" - he doesn't get it
  • I'd really want a guy named like that in charge of my experimental lab :-)
  • Or SDD as it is known in HughBar-Labs [inventors of llama-case, one capital letter at the beginning of stuff] has been in use since about 1930. Some blame it for the rise of the Nazis in Germany, they used plenty of slogans, too. Our lawyer tried to sue them, but we never heard from him again, last thing was a postcard from some place sounding like Tribblinka, maybe the tribbles ate him?

    Seriously though folks.
  • failing fast is a way to learn even faster.

    This can't possibly be true. If it were...

    For Democrats: Congress would be full of rocket scientists by now.

    For Republicans: Obama would be a Republican by now.

  • You can only learn from the mistakes if you have the courage to make mistakes.
  • I really don't get the fashion of saying 'fail' when they really mean 'take risks'. They aren't the same thing, and a lot of people misunderstand before they think about it. It's very easy to fail without risk of success or learning.

  • "Fail fast, fail frequently, fail cheap" I forget the book I read that in. --Josh
  • I suppose it depends on how you define "failed". In my book, no way was Google Glass a failure. If you think they meant to make megabucks by selling a product, sure... but I can't imagine that that's what they expected to occur. It was a big experiment, and a lot of data was collected from it.

You see but you do not observe. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes"

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