Before You Start a Project, Do Your Best to Kill It

Astro Teller's innovation tip? Fail fast. Here's how he cultivates and rewards intellectually honest failures, and helps his team get comfortable with the idea.

Astro Teller: Failure, seen properly, is just a recognition of fast learning. So I have training wheels, which I try to put on this concept within X, to try to help everyone get comfortable with the idea. Here's an example. You're working on a project. It either has an Achilles’ heel or it doesn't. Would we like to discover that Achilles’ heel, if it exists, now or later?  If you say later you've just signed up to be intellectually dishonest.  You're not really going to sign up for that.  As soon as you acknowledge that should it have an Achilles’ heel we'd like to know about that now rather than later, then it becomes the right way for us to behave – to check to see if it has an Achilles’ heel now, right now.  If it has the Achilles’ heel we'll end the project and we'll go find something better to do.  And if it doesn't have an Achilles’ heel we can move forward with that increased level of excitement and certainty that we're on the right track.

Let's pretend that you are setting out to make a time machine at X and you have two choices.  One, to cause a pebble or a mouse to move backwards one minute in time to actually cause some small amount of time travel, or to design the user interface for the cockpit of the time machine.  I think we can all agree in this particular example that working on the user interface for the cockpit, once you get it done it will look like you've made progress but you haven't you've made motion.  We can all sit there, look at your cockpit and say the chances that we succeed are exactly the same as they were before. We've not actually made any progress because all of the risk was on the part you chose not to do.  What you should have done first was the other one. 

Our shorthand for this at X is we joke #MonkeyFirst. Similar to the time machine, if you're trying to get a monkey to stand on a pedestal ten feet high and recite Shakespeare monologues and you have a choice between training the monkey first and building the pedestal, if you build the pedestal first when your boss walks by he's like, “Hey nice pedestal!” And then you feel good.  You just did something useful, you just got a little bit of attaboy. That's why people do that. But you've utterly wasted your company's money if you build the pedestal first because all of the hard part is getting the monkey to recite Shakespeare. If you can get the monkey to recite Shakespeare we can always build the pedestal afterwards. But if you can't, thank goodness we didn't spend a moment or a penny building what turned out to be a useless pedestal.  

Now, in order to get a culture at X to do that we need to reward people when they do it. So when someone raises their hand and says, “My project looks really good but I've discovered I don't think it's going to work out because of this subtle but important issue,” and those ten people now need to find a new jobs. If we say, “Sucks to be you,” no one at X will ever again raise their hand and say that. But if we say to them, “Hey, that was awesome. What incredible intellectual honesty you just displayed and good critical thinking to have discovered this. We're going to work super hard to find all of you new jobs somewhere at X or at Alphabet. We're going to give you all bonuses for having ended your project so thoughtfully. Take long vacations and then when you're done come back and join another project here and get going again with extra levels of passion because you're now working on something that you don't secretly know is going to fail at some point in the future, which is how you would have felt if you had stuck on your old project.”

People are sad when they have to end their projects.  They don't end of their projects lightly.  But because they've come to understand that ending their project is just being intellectually honest, it's driving for high efficiency, which is why we use the word factory and tie it to moonshots because we're trying to systematize innovation.  We're trying to drive to high efficiency innovation.  And that can best be done by being honest when you're on the wrong track. And that is failing fast.

 

Astro Teller is a Hertz Foundation Fellow and recipient of the prestigious Hertz Foundation Grant for graduate study in the applications of the physical, biological and engineering sciences. Teller is now the CEO, aka ‘Captain of Moonshots’, at the innovation factory simply called X (formerly Google X). In this video, he illuminates a critical difference: when undertaking a project, do you want to feel you’ve accomplished something, or do you actuallywant to accomplish it? With the support of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, he pursued a PhD in artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon University.


The Hertz Foundation mission is to provide unique financial and fellowship support to the nation's most remarkable PhD students in the hard sciences. Hertz Fellowships are among the most prestigious in the world, and the foundation has invested over $200 million in Hertz Fellows since 1963 (present value) and supported over 1,100 brilliant and creative young scientists, who have gone on to become Nobel laureates, high-ranking military personnel, astronauts, inventors, Silicon Valley leaders, and tenured university professors. For more information, visit hertzfoundation.org.

Americans under 40 want major reforms, expanded Supreme Court

Younger Americans support expanding the Supreme Court and serious political reforms, says new poll.

Credit: Jon Cherry/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Americans under 40 largely favor major political reforms, finds a new survey.
  • The poll revealed that most would want to expand the Supreme Court, impose terms limits, and make it easier to vote.
  • Millennials are more liberal and reform-centered than Generation Z.
Keep reading Show less

Can you solve what an MIT professor once called 'the hardest logic puzzle ever'?

Logic puzzles can teach reasoning in a fun way that doesn't feel like work.

Credit: Prostock-studio via Adobe Stock
Mind & Brain
  • Logician Raymond Smullyan devised tons of logic puzzles, but one was declared by another philosopher to be the hardest of all time.
  • The problem, also known as the Three Gods Problem, is solvable, even if it doesn't seem to be.
  • It depends on using complex questions to assure that any answer given is useful.
Keep reading Show less

The Sun was half of a binary system, a new paper suggests

The theory could resolve some unanswered questions.

Image source: NASA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • Most stars begin in binary systems, why not ours?
  • Puzzles posed by the Oort cloud and the possibility of Planet 9 may be solved by a new theory of our sun's lost companion.
  • The sun and its partner would have become separated long, long ago.

If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.

The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Oort cloud

Oort Cloud graphic

Image source: NASA

Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.

Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)

No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.

It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."

"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."

Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."

Planet 9

rendering of a planet in space

Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA

The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.

"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."

The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."

Missing in action

Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."

So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."

New tardigrade species withstands lethal UV radiation thanks to fluorescent 'shield'

Another amazing tardigrade survival skill is discovered.

Credit: Suma et al., Biology Letters (2020)
Surprising Science
  • Apparently, some water bears can even beat extreme UV light.
  • It may be an adaptation to the summer heat in India.
  • Special under-skin pigments neutralize harmful rays.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast