Google's Project X: Solving the worlds problems, one moon-shot at a time

Using the ambitious plans to put humans on the moon as a source of inspiration, Google is asking young minds to come up with their own 'moon-shots' that approach solving important problems in new and creative ways.

Google started out as a search engine provider, but today the company isn't just helping web surfers find cute cat videos. The technology giant is aiding in humanity's search for a brighter future. In this quest, Google has become somewhat obsessed with the moon—and with the letter X. Here's a quick look at how these two symbols have become part of the Google brand, and the way this focus on the mysterious may shape our world.

One of the presentations was someone who promised 99% compression using algorithms that were created through a neural net. That’s a holy grail.<

Barry Burd, author of Android for Dummies 

Exiting the Google X lab

This secretive laboratory is where Google gathers some of its brightest employees to develop the gadgets that will make our lives more interesting—and hopefully a bit easier. Incremental improvement may be good enough for updates in Google's ever-changing algorithms, butthe stuff designed in the X lab must meet a higher standard. If it isn't 10x better than any other solution for a problem, it probably isn't worth creating.

While the specifics of many projects are kept carefully under wraps, Google does love to provide hints about what's on the horizon. Automated transportation, medical devices, and wearable computing are in various stages of development right now. A dozen driverless vehicles roam the roads in the U.S. on a given day, and the company is hard at work developing a contact lens that monitors blood sugar levels.

At the same time, not every creation turns out to be a major breakthrough. Google Glass is going through a bumpy stretch after a disappointing trial period, and the project is being bumped off of the X lab fast track. It's now going through a major overhaul at the more prosaic Nest home automation division. Google has left the new launch date a complete unknown—another X?

To the moon and back

The technology giant likes to handle projects with immediate commercial application and a fast track to profitability in-house. However, the company isn't opposed to outsourcing innovation in pursuit of more lofty goals. For example, Google is a prime sponsor of the XPRIZE, and CEO Larry Page sits on the board of trustees. This organization, which calls itself an "innovation engine and facilitator of exponential change", is engaged in prize philanthropy. It rewards those who show the greatest initiative and creativity in solving proposed problems.

Why offer prizes for innovation? The XPRIZE foundation believes that providing a target and an incentive is the best way to get results. Marrying money with genius is a firm part of Page's personal philosophy as well. In an interview with Wired Magazine, he revealed: "When I was growing up, I wanted to be an inventor. Then I realized that there are a lot of sad stories about inventors like Nikola Tesla, amazing people who didn't have much impact, because they never turned their inventions into businesses." Larry plans to turn genius into big business.

Google is currently sponsoring the $30 million dollar Google Lunar XPRIZE. According to the XPRIZE website, "The largest international incentive based prize of all time aims to open a new era of lunar travel by vastly decreasing the cost of access to the Moon and space." This new era of space travel starts with landing a privately funded robot on the moon. The winning robot design will be selected in 2016. Since Google passed on the idea of the space elevator, it looks like the big money is on robots.

Solve for X is gaining momentum

Initially something of a side project at Google,the Solve for X collaboration has grown to become a crowdsourced think tank with the help of hundreds of inventors. No global problem is too immense to tackle. No technology is too futuristic to create—and no proposed solution is too "far out" for consideration. Any idea that brings together all three elements is considered a "moonshot", an ambitious endeavor meant to fire the imagination and breach new frontiers.

One of the ways Google is growing its support base is by opening up the project to "Google Developer Groups". These tech enthusiasts come together to provide resources, facilitate innovation, and review potential ideas. Barry Burd Author of Java for Dummies and a frequent ServerSide contributor, is an observer at the Northern NJ Developers group. He's described many of the potentially paradigm-shifting concepts under consideration including DNA-enabled water filtration, cancer cures, and a true Theory of Everything.

Consumers still influence the market for innovation

But it's not all about making it to the moon. It might also be about getting the latest cheesy space adventure to download faster. According to Barry, "One of the presentations was someone who promised 99% compression using algorithms that were created through a neural net. That's a holy grail—especially since he's talking about lossless compression. It would make it possible to deliver a 2 hour movie to your home in seconds. I'm still trying to get to see this with my own eyes."

Of course, there's going to be money on the table at some point. Burd stated, "Each Solve for X pioneer is an entrepreneur—a person with a big idea, but also with a business plan, a team of co-workers, a newly-founded company, a patent or two, a series of tests that have already been performed, a series of tests yet to be performed and some (but not yet enough) funding." In the end, Solve for X may combine the best of TED Talks and Shark Tank. One thing is certain, where minds and money mix, magic happens.

What problem would your Solve for X contribution solve? Let us know.

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