Astro Teller gave a keynote at Disrupt NY to talk about what he’s doing. He is the head of Google’s forward-looking innovation lab, Google X. The team is responsible for the self-driving cars, Project Loon, Google Glass and more. And his message was very different from what you would expect.
According to Teller, the truly innovative projects should become perfectly transparent in our lives. He started off his keynote by talking about car brakes and ABS systems. When you put your foot on the brake of the car, you’re not actually activating the brakes. It’s just an interface. You are actually making a request to a robot.
“That is a wonderful technology moment. We don’t have to mess with it. We just say here’s what we want,” he said. “When technology reaches that level of invisibility in our lives, that’s our ultimate goal. It vanishes into our lives. It says: ‘you don’t have to do the work, I’ll do the work.’”
Phones would be better if we didn’t have to carry them around.
Yet, when you talk about technology today, you talk about smartphones, laptops and smartwatches. According to Teller, human attention is one of the most important things right now, but technology doesn’t help at all. It distracts us. It interrupts our lives.
“Phones would not be better if they could be cooler looking, if they could weight less, or if they could have more battery. Phones would be better if we didn’t have to carry them around,” he said.
That’s why Google X is taking a contrarian approach. In some ways, the team has an anti-technology way of thinking. Technology has to become more efficient so that it can fade away in the background.
“We’re excited about how technology can be used to get technology out of the way,” Teller said. “Most of us have to spend a lot of energy to learn how to drive a car. Then we have to spend the rest of our lives over-concentrating as we drive, and text, and eat a burrito, and put on makeup. As a result, 30,000 people die every year in a car accident in the U.S.”
As Google X is working on self-driving cars, Teller believes that there is no way back — every car will soon be entirely automated. “We’re going to look back and wonder why we had to micro-control our cars.”
Then, the talk shifted toward wearable technology. Many believe that gadgets like Google Glass will make us more distracted, not less. In Teller’s own words, “what’s the moonshot?”
In an ideal world, you don’t have to fight with the user interface. “The only time you notice it is when it’s gone,” Teller said. “It makes us feel more human instead of less human.”
Google X is all about discovering what the future will look like. And we’re still far away from this ideal world of transparent technology. According to Teller, “we’ve just failed so far to get technology to its higher purpose, which is to get technology out of the way.”