Moonshots and changing the world

By | July 13, 2020
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I was reading the tech news last week (as I’m wont to do) and came across something really good for once!  Rather than security breaches and privacy violations – this was the culmination of nearly two decades of work by some very, very clever people.

It’s a project called “Loon”, that aims to bring internet access to remote areas of the world using giant hot-air balloons (a bit like weather balloons).  It’s a Google project – something they call a “Moonshot”.  These are big, ambitious research projects that have the potential to make a huge difference to the world.

I think it’s a fantastic idea – as well as Google’s everyday business, they have people whose job it is to come up with and develop these big ideas.  The part of Google that comes up with these ideas is called “X” – a bit of a silly name, I know, but there you go.

As well as Loon, some other pretty amazing things have come out of “X” recently:


This is Google’s self-driving cars project.  Unlike some of the other companies working on this, Google aren’t interested in developing the cars themselves.  As they point out, “other people are pretty good at that”!  Instead, Waymo is all about making the computer gubbins work as well as possible – the bit that actually does the driving.  Then it can be slotted into lots of different makes of car.

This isn’t just a prototype any more, either – it’s a fully working system.  Waymo have a fleet of driverless cars in Pheonix, Arizona that ordinary members of the public can use like taxis.

Usually when you hear about deliveries by drones, it’s Amazon’s system that people are talking about.  But Google have a drone delivery system called Wing that has been up and running for a couple of years now.  It’s used to deliver essentials like medical supplies to out-of-the-way areas in Australia and Finland.  It was set up as a fast and fuel-efficient way to deliver goods to hard-to-reach places like these.


Now this is a really clever one.  It’s an attempt to make wind power cheaper and more efficient by putting wind turbines on self-flying kites, rather than massive steel towers.  Last year, Makani partnered with Shell to try and make versions that could actually be used in the real world.  Sadly, it didn’t come to anything, but the technology is still out there – maybe one day someone will get them to work on a large enough scale.


This is Google’s medical arm, and they’ve come up with all sorts of amazing bits of technology to help research, detection and treatment.  For example, they’ve done a lot of work on early detection of eye damage caused by diabetes.  And they’re currently working on smart contact lenses to help treat deteriorating eye-sight in the elderly.

X (or similar teams of people – it didn’t always have such a daft name!) were also behind Google StreetView and more recently the StreetView-type stuff that lets you look around inside famous buildings.  They also developed Google’s artificial intelligence system (Google Brain) that’s now used all over the place. 

They were also responsible for the wearable computer glasses “Google Glass” – but then, you can’t win them all!

The overall goal of the X projects is to find good solutions to the world’s biggest problems.  Not just little improvements – projects that could make the situation at least 10× better.  And I reckon that’s a pretty good aim to have.

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