Did any of their moonshots really hit the mark or even come close?
And this is where I think google (and many big companies) fail. Technologically, Loons worked. I did not believe it when I read about those, but looking at the trajectories in public ADS-B data (those balloons self-advertise) it is clear that they move as designed, doing 2D positioning using only vertical control and can stay afloat for months. Wow! Mission accomplished. But commercially, nothing happened.
I do not know if it was because business types were not sold on it and did not build a commercial case; did the technical team simply live in their own bubble not talking to the outside; something else? But a 10-year "moonshot" project that pans out technologically and fails commercially indicates that the right hand ("internal VC") does not know or care what the left hand (techies) is doing, which is the problem at the company. My 2c.
Selling stolen technology you tried to patent from under the company you suckered into believing into buyout, and then having those patents stripped by the Judge might have something to do with it.
Occasionally starting moonshots as "high risk, uncertain reward" is OK for a short time, but if there is no clear reward on success after a year or two it might be continued as a PR or a charity, but not a moonshot. My 2c.
Per their wiki article:
> Astro Teller has said that Google Brain paid for the entire cost of Google X
even assuming that Waymo has zero expected future profitability.
My own personal image of X was that if you had to drive to some old Air Force base to see it, it was X. Since brain was software, it doesn’t fit the model.
Brain is also a much more general organization. They do things like develop Tensorflow, which is one of two most popular ML frameworks in the world (and until recently was far and away the most popular), and TPUs, which are ML-dedicated ASICs that have a huge impact on training and inference.
Both orgs are world class and historically important, and they certainly overlap, but they aren't replacements for one another.
That's about Google's entire revenue for 2020. I don't think even Google could put a man on the moon at those rates. Literal moonshots are expensive.
So it wouldn't be insubstantial, but they could fund a similar effort if they really wanted to. Shareholders would have a thing or two to say about that though, which is why Elon Musk is keeping SpaceX private.
Yes, if it were possible to go from zero to moon in one year then that would be all of Google revenue. But spread over 10 years that's just 10% per year.
as a percentage of the yearly federal budget, it's not that extreme.
I believe the DoD budget (entirely non-NASA) is presently running around 700 billion a year.
some very quick searching tells me the total federal budget is something like 3500 billion a year. 4.4% of that would be 154bn a year.
Edit: The specific number is under 2 millisievert per day. And "One sievert carries with it a 5.5% chance of eventually developing fatal cancer based on the linear no-threshold model."
But wow what a drawn-out load of nothing a mission like that would be.
Uh... don't count your Mars shots before they're hatched. Even getting robot probes to Mars is very very hard. Only about half of Mars missions have been successful. In fact, since the fall of the Soviet Union only one organisation has succeeded in putting working probes on the Martian surface: NASA/JPL.
I don't think it's impossible that SpaceX will get there, but certainly not soon and not for "a few billion". If they succeed at all, it will require drawing on years on investment and expertise by NASA.
And SpaceX will soon have the capability to do it with zillion times less. Seems like if you really want to make it possible, you can.
More like "if the hard groundwork has been done 60 years ago". It's not as if SpaceX had to quite literally invent the orbital rocket.
So after 60 years of manned spaceflight, 9 manned lunar missions, and 30 years of flying reusable crewed vehicles with a space station that has been permanently crewed since 1998 someone better do it MUCH more cheaply.
The culprit isn't just "space is hard" - it's decades of cost-plus contracts and heavy government involvement that kept costs high and results low.
I prefer to think of a moonshot as longer than a longshot, whatever that might be worth.
It sure is sad though, coming from the acquisition before Google X that had just so many great players throughout.
No Saturn V rocket ever failed.
But unfortunate though that was, it didn't represent a fundamental uncertainty in the achievability of the goal - simply a fatal engineering mistake, which was immediately rectified.
It certainly seems like Google's most likely moon shot to take off. But considering only a few thousand people have used it, it's not exactly a big success.
That point of mine now has me wondering what Waymo will look like in 10-20 years’ time when autonomous vehicles become both ubiquitous and un-cool because it’s nothing new anymore (just like how Facebook is un-cool today). Will Waymo’s maintainers be adding new features that benefit the consumer, or will there be pressure to “monetise” it from every angle? And to what extent will brand-conscious automakers go to hide the fact they’re using Waymo, e.g. will they insist on rebranding it - not just for themselves, but between their own sub-brands (e.g. Ford vs Lincoln, or VW and Audi)?
It’s not a moonshot, it’s an absolute necessity.
If one remote operator can supervise 10 mostly autonomous vehicles, you've gotten 90% of the economic value of full autonomy.
That's not to say you shouldn't dream big (it's a moonshot after all). But there are plenty of reasons to think it won't be viable even if they can solve the technical challenges, and that much still isn't even clear yet.
Customer support is also going to be far far fewer than one person per vehicle.
The enormous amounts of data? If it's not valuable they can just discard it! Having sensors attached to something doesn't obligate you to store it forever.
Everyone knows the software/configuration costs are immense here. But that's the lion's share of the difficulty, and there's no reason to act like minor hurdles are bigger than they are.
I'm curious what the legal requirements for this will be. But I imagine they'd want to hold on to data of driving scenarios for at least a month, in case they get accused of wrongdoing by other drivers. If they had no data to back up their case with all those sensors, it would look awfully suspicious and essentially one witness against nobody - so they'd have to hold onto the data for however long the legal teams deem is okay.
This may sound crazy, but it's already happening at the scale of testing with just a few dozen cars.
Though enough data to disprove a hit and run wouldn't actually take up very much space. Medium-resolution camera views and some acceleration data? Sure, pop a single SSD in there and it'll hold more than a month's logs.
The real world is full of edge cases - cameras fogging up, proximity sensors confused by ice buildup, thick fog limiting visibility, sun low on the horizon blinding the cameras, badly marked construction sites, black ice, line markers under snow, potholes, slush, contradictory traffic signs, deep puddles, worn out ruts, suicidal wildlife, road debris, etc. etc.
Wrt. moonshots - one need to have huge political capital inside the company to carry the high risk of large investment. I.e. one has to be Jobs or Musk. Even Yang failed. How Nadella succeeded it is kind of a miracle. It looks like there are no people of that caliber at Google these days, and without it you have a CFO touting "investing for long term" which in CFO mind obviously means investment like buying real estate and not a technology moonshot.
Was there really ever anything more?
When the US took a moon shot, we actually made it to the dann moon. It was very expensive and risky and lives were lost. But we committed ourselves and accomplished the goal no matter what it took.
I hope that these Alphabet projects aren't just pr / recruiting investments disguised as big ideas about the future.
The technology worked. It was, in fact, totally possible to build solar-powered, balloon-borne LTE base stations that provided internet access directly to handheld phones.
But in the end, it was just a fundamentally flawed idea. Satellites don't pop and fall out of the sky. Balloons do, frequently.
> But in the end, it was just a fundamentally flawed idea. Satellites don't pop and fall out of the sky. Balloons do, frequently.
Rich DeVaul, a founder of the project who is no longer with Alphabet, said surging demand for mobile connectivity made towers cost-effective in more of the world than he had estimated a decade ago, diminishing the need for Loon. “The problem got solved faster than we thought,” he said in an interview.
It's really hard to be a public company and to take big risks like this. The Apollo Program never would have worked as a startup or public company.
I personally had hoped they told analysts that taking large bets for often no financial outcome is just who Alphabet are - but they folded to the Wall St pressure
The space program's history is very different from what most people imagine it to have been.
You're right that Kennedy was ambivalent about it, and that working with the USSR was floated, but ultimately he did decide to go ahead with it. And there were people opposed, but "extremely unpopular" doesn't sound right. Like, I think the majority of the population was broadly in favor.
She does say this quite a bit!
I just choked on my Tea. Did you perhaps miss the fact they stole Loon technology from a company they were in talks of acquiring? got sued, lost, and finally quietly settled?
it’s just corporate PR so people can fawn over them like your post and want to work there or use their products
Capturing eyeballs and mindshare before anyone else can is hardly charitable. It was 100% for the benefit of themselves, and everyone knows it. Facebook have tried the same scam.
Could a startup set up a commercial balloon based mesh network without running into patents now held by google? Probably not.
THIS is the problem with these "skunkworks" type projects from megacorps. They suck all the air out of the room and prevent others from innovating.
Loon didn't fail, Google/Alphabet just decided they were going to discontinue funding. Now they hold a pool of patents they don't intend to do anything with. Now they will point that funding elsewhere and do the same.
> Loon didn't fail, Google/Alphabet just decided they were going to discontinue funding. Now they hold a pool of patents they don't intend to do anything with. Now they will point that funding elsewhere and do the same.
They did EXACTLY what you are asking for the last X project that was sunset.
> In 2020 Makani’s journey as a company came to an end. To share the lessons and insights the Makani team gained from their 13 year journey developing an entirely new kind of wind energy technology, the team created The Energy Kite Collection, a portfolio of resources including a technical report, Makani’s entire avionics, flight controls and simulation code repositories, flight logs for every crosswind flight of the M600 prototype, technical videos, a new simulation tool called KiteFAST created with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and a non-assertion pledge for the free use of Makani’s worldwide patent portfolio.
However, this is certainly not the norm. Lets see if it holds true for Loon.
Talk about bias...
For example, if you wanted to use a laser link to communicate between two ground-tethered weather balloons, you would need to account for the movements of the balloons to correct the link alignment. Lo and behold, first patent on the list (https://loon.com/legal/patents/) is for that exact thing (https://patents.google.com/patent/US8634974B2/en).
What about control the descent of a balloon by letting out some of the gas? You know, like flight balloons use, but "with a computer". Yep, patent for that too.
LOADS of the patents are basically "mesh network but with ballons"
These are obvious things you would need to do, and yet they are patented.
In short, they took away the ability to do ANY balloon based communications - not just a stratospheric global mesh network of current maneuvering autonomous balloons.
Of course, this shit shouldnt be permitted. The patent system is broken, as we often discuss around here.
IMHO, if these megacorps had ANY honour, they would release all patents to public domain - with revocation clause from another entity if that entity creates a derivative patent without same license. THAT is how to foster innovation - everything else should be a trade secret.
They dont own any patents, they stole the tech from a startup, got sued, lost (patents) and finally had to settle.
I know Google gets hate for shutting things down, but they have hundreds of products – I can't think of any other tech company with such a wide range of products. They make bets, and with bets comes a certain amount of failure. I'd guess they have a better "success" rate than, say, YC.
(Ugh, I hate defending Google, but alas)
My question wasn't to be a jerk. It was a legitimate question asked out if ignorance.
I still kind of feel like they could be in a lot of additional areas like logistics where they could put all their capital and software edge into becoming a global leader.
One example of a new one they're trying is Stadia. Gaming in general is an already large and growing sector, and while there have been some attempt at game streaming, none of been as serious. You can see it will be big by the fact that Microsoft (xCloud) and Amazon (Luna) both also jumped in a year later also.
As far as actual moonshots/X go, I believe they have (or had) a few around energy tech. They've funded quite a lot of research into various fusion tech . They also have a lot efforts in Biotech, may it be with Verily, or just DeepMind doing interesting research, such as solving Protein Folding recently .
So I definitely wouldn't say they are lacking breadth, honestly if anything it's hard to remember everything they do, as you pointed out :)
It seems to me they are all boring, obvious, copied, or purchased products that complement their ad selling business.
Yes, Google makes money off ads. But how does that discount them being innovations (which, btw, is a qualification you came up with... nobody above you even said they were).
Hotmail and Mapquest would like to chime in here...
Hotmail was full of spam, insecure and you had to delete your emails when you were done with them.
Mapquest had directions but the maps were static and you couldn’t interact with them.
I’m not saying Google invented email or maps, but they did define how we currently think of them.
Sure, they bought it because they saw that it will go nicely with their adtech thing.
Or who knows. Really. Google is very big. They always has been quirky and enormously successful and profitable. It's very hard to attribute causality to its actions retroactively, especially because even the small numbers are in the billions range, but they are always dwarfed by the adtech blob.
But there's room for nuance. 74% of their revenue was from adtech in 2019 (11 months, 162B USD)
But that means they made 40+ billion from other "stuff" ( https://d3jlwjv6gmyigl.cloudfront.net/images/2020/04/Google-... ).
One of the big problems of Google is that anything that does not integrate with adtech just doesn't really makes sense for them. They have no real model of what to do with things that are not adtech. Chat apps? Whatever the current flavor is. Social network? Yeah, we tried to copy FB, made everyone put +1 buttons everywhere, but ... did not really matter, as it was an insecure hack and it did not really give that oompfh to adtech that they expected.
But they could have kept G+. There's a constant need for a FB alternative. Every time FB fucks up a bunch of people would have tried G+. I'm not saying G+ was good, but shutting it did not make much sense. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
There's already a few players in this space that are well respected like Nvidia, growth is kinda unavoidable and arguably Stadia gives you the best experience since all games are optimized for it, with the trade-off of having to "rebuy" them outside of Steam.
But I think Gmail and Maps were fairly innovative products when they came up. Both in terms of "wow I didn't think this would be possible before" and being viable businesses.
There's almost 3 billion android phones out there, and one guy leaving isn't going to cause Google to throw up their hands and shrug. Phones are just really, really good now, and there's not much you can really innovate on.
Then they served their real function: marketing
Loon is not competitive in a world with Starlink (even without Starlink it seems).
The business didn’t make strategic sense.
I still really liked their original goal of loon for all and the first video they made for it: https://youtu.be/m96tYpEk1Ao
It’s a little sad they had to downsize and give up. I guess Licklider was right to title the original internet paper an “intergalactic computer network”.
Musk started with interplanetary goals and he’ll at least end up with one that covers the earth.
Loon for all started too small.
But yes, you’re right that being able to use LTE and existing phone radios was a point in loon’s favor.
The price per base station is quite high right now. Estimates range from $500 - $2500 (based on teardown).
But, even if so, look at Google Fiber. Google benefits from networking build out, regardless of if they're providing the network; it's just as good for them if someone else builds the network. If starlink can fill the niche that Loon filled, that works just as well for Google, on someone else's capex/opex.
Or if the freespace optics they worked on for Loon can reduce backhaul costs for traditional cell towers, that might help get more deployed in areas that don't have connectivity; which again works well for Google.
The strategic failure was not recognizing that starlink’s approach to the problem made way more sense.
They didn’t see that as the existential threat it was.
Instead they downsized their implementation to running the network over poor countries and hand waved a bit about being able to provide connectivity in congested areas.
Loon has no viable future in a world with starlink.
That's a real shame if true, because they solve different problems. Loon is like a super high range cell tower and could fill in a lot of gaps.
Think of the investments in Loon, Taara, SpaceX and Google Fiber as part of a larger strategy to bring internet access with decent bandwidth to a larger number of humans. Some investments will not pan out, others will bear fruit.
Does this make sense for alphabet? I agree that it does as one of their many bets.
Does it make sense for Loon which spun off as its own company under alphabet with its own leadership and its own stock? That’s the strategic failure I’m talking about, Loon’s not alphabet’s.
They invested in multiple potential paths to a global internet. It's not surprising that they'd drop the investments that aren't as promising as the investments that are showing significant promise.
It's like saying I applied to multiple colleges, and because I only accepted one application, that the other applications were a failure. But, no, it could just mean that I preferred to go to the college that I accepted, but the others were a hedge against that path not working out.
When I look at Google X and bunch of modern corporate labs (Lab 126, Facebook probably has something, Intel Labs (drones!), Microsoft Labs), I see a whole lotta hoo haa about tech innovation, but nothing with a long term vision of integration, capitalization and sustenance. No sense of practicality and pragmatism. May be Loon is a way to make Google an internet company (ISP), I could be wrong but as an outsider, it feels like a PR stunt than anything else.
Highly recommend this book.
Similarly Google has had huge contributions on "research" focused on their core problems: MapReduce, BigTable, Borg, BERT, etc.
And if it have worked reliably and affordably, they probably could have found some way to monetize it.
Oh, and Fire TV, and Echo.
Yeah, Lab 126 definitely did its job. Literally every product integrates is a core part of the Amazon experience.
More people are willing to buy a phone and a phone plan (Facebook was even willing to subsidize the plan in India with Internet.org) than buying a phone, a phone plan, an antenna and a StarLink plan. That's even more true for people who aren't internet users yet.
I measured out 59cm on a measuring tape and compared it to my refrigerator, and that's much larger than any pizza I have ever seen.
I don’t know what kind of barbaric society you hail from, but here in civilization 12” is a small pizza. ;-)
That's quite a bit bigger than even a large pizza.
I get the basic idea, that you try lots of big ambitious projects, and most of them will fail but some will hopefully stick; but how do you distinguish between a 5% success rate and a 1% rate, say?
Deep pockets and the willingness to place big long-term and medium-term bets is crucial, but it’s not everything you need. Does Google X have processes, people, notable successes they can point to to show that they really are good at moonshots?
At least that's what Astro Teller is talking about a lot: Work on the approach, don't pursue single lucky punches.
Sad that loom didn't work out. If X fails eventually, I think the idea of radical corporate innovation from scratch is dead.
Then Elon seems to be the only one left with the most promising 10x or even 100x playbook: hardcore dedication to insane goals in terms of resources, work ethics and throughput.
I think their self-driving cars project is probably what X could be at its peak, incredibly challenging projects, high profit potential, well financed.
Projects like loon seem more like a project that a university would get grant funding to finance.
Did you know that his grandfather was Edward Teller, inventor of the hydrogen bomb? In one of Edward's final contributions , he mathematically modeled the cost and effect of pumping sulfur-based compounds into the upper atmosphere to reduce runaway feedback loops of global warming. On paper, it works. Solving global climate change is a real moonshot -- but too bad it is so taboo, because it could dramatically benefit all life on earth, if done right. Looks like balloons could be helpful for the implementation, too 
I don't really understand - wasn't the whole premise of Google X and their "Other Bets" that "Google has deep pockets. Let's use this to explore radically big ideas, that are ahead of their time, and let the world catch up to them?"
Bringing "abundant, affordable Internet access, not just to the next billion, but to the last billion" is clearly an investment. You bring them the internet. You spur them to achieve great things. Then you reap the financial rewards.
But that's not a 10-year plan, that's a 20-50-100 year plan. But, there's no reason to think that Google couldn't think like a 20-50-100 year company if they tried.
So what happened? Did they really think that they were going to make money from the poorest 1B people on the planet BEFORE they brought them ubiquitous internet and helped them use that internet to improve their quality of life?
It looks to me like Google made a couple of bets over the last 10 years on different paths to getting worldwide internet access.
One path is looking more promising than the other, so they're culling now.
I'd say it was a really good investment for them.
I don't think this kind of warning is a helpful part of the conversation.
If you want to make an argument against Starlink, fine, go ahead and make it. But what is the use of the admonition for someone to "think carefully before they respond"?
It seems to be the only real effect that is intended to have is to deter additional conversation.
Anyway, I'm going to go ahead and ignore your warning, and the credentials you present: I think Starlink is going to be a commercial success. If they solve the satellite interlink problem (which, admittedly, is a big problem), I think it will be a viable path to delivering a global internet solution.
Oh yeah and I also interviewed with Loon.
Iridium solved the satellite interlink problem (but only wirelessly at 10 Mbps). They could have used laser crosslinks but they didn't know how to implement a search / sync up algorithm (fast sub-second search algorithms were available before iridium was built but they failed to take advantage of the MIT research.)
The basic problem is that Iridium / Globalstar / Loon / Starlink are all fill-in systems for terrestrial internet. And since we've been deploying terrestrial internet for 25Y, the number of places missing higher-speed internet is smaller and smaller each year. All the rich customers have all been reached by faster, cheaper wires. The poor customers ... well they are poor, they will not pay much for service. And there are fewer of them every year ...
No LEO system can actually penetrate a building with a data signal. It's a physics problem with sending a signal 400 mi wirelessly. Reusable rockets don't solve that physics / power problem. Iridium has a special +35dbm channel that can ring a phone inside a building, but you have to walk outside (in the rain, snow, whatever) to take the call. Same with starlink. Physics hasn't changed since the mid 1990s. It is not expected to change in the next billion years, either.
So its just not a smart thing to build satellite internet. period.
I never understood it. It is expensive to keep things fighting gravity. The only way to avoid that is to either a) not put them up above the earth, or b) put them high enough that gravity isn't much of a force, like low earth orbit.
It doesn't take a genius to understand that, but it took Elon Musk to prove it.
Meanwhile... Google launched balloons.
See also: FB project Aquila.
Or, I suppose more simply, "weather".
> Sadly, despite the team’s groundbreaking technical achievements over the last 9 years — ... — the road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped.
Focus is on the technical achievements, never mind if anyone ever used it.
For example, providing Loon antennas to a telecom provider, and decreasing the infrastructure cost of setting up networks.
Historically yes, but while I don't know the numbers, a launch provider that is able to reduce the cost by about an order of magnitude might have an advantage here (SpaceX are also launching 60 of them at once).
It also seems like satellites would be a bit less vulnerable to outside interference than balloons.
In a world in which satellites stayed very expensive I could imagine it being a bit more successful.
this project was dead in the water a long time ago, and for years
At this point, they should give up and settle into their role as the 21st century IBM.
There's no way to compare Loon to a regular commercial venture.
It's just stuff the founders want to do and that's fine.
Musk is offering $100 million to the team providing the best carbon capture technology.
My niece, on the other hand, just built a pretty cool rocket out of a soda bottle!
If SpaceX is less comically incompetent than Tesla, I'd wager it's because Elon Musk hasn't been paying as much attention to it.
The sky - our sky - is not a playground for tech companies.
Imposing a mesh-grid of thousands of balloons in the sky is an incredible intrusion for people around the world who have not asked for anything.
It's the same for mega constellations of satellites (Starlink).
Would you be willing to have a company come and put unsolicited electronic equipment in your backyard? Probably not. It's the same for our sky - I don't want that Facebook or Google impose thousands of electronic devices in our sky. Or maybe ask "the owner" before you start, i.e. the citizens of the world.
What's more beautiful than watching stars in the sky in a July/August warm night?
Do you really want to lose this landscape forever and have 100 times more satellites than we already have? and have series of white dots one behind the other?
OK, companies and states have done it the past, but it's not a valid argument to justify the acceleration with a factor 10 or 100 of this process with thousands of Starlink satellites for example.
Regarding the satellites, i hope the Starlink satellites will also be not visible to the naked eye once they reach their final orbit now that they have the sunshade.
On the other hand, these technologies provide a huge benefit to the people on the ground.
If you want to complain about Loon you should also complain about regular airplanes, helicopters, zeppelins, weather balloons and balloons in general.
This is not guaranteed at all. I read articles in the past mentioning that you will see "trains" of dozens of white dots one behind another in the sky.
Do we currently see satellites in a dark summer night?
Yes. So for Starlink it will be the same, except with 10 of them one behind another.
I'd be happy to read more sources confirming or infirming this.
"Will" there means "right after launch, when they're in a very different orbit from final". They spread out by a very large distance, so that in the final version you'd only have line of sight to a few scattered across the sky.
Here's a study https://arxiv.org/abs/2101.00374 that looks at Starlink satellites with the visor. Looks like Starlink will be visible only in rather dark areas with good viewing conditions. It's not like you're just looking up and they will bother you.
NB: currently we don't have "trains" of satellites, i.e. ten white dots one behind the other in the sky. The mega constellation projects would create this.
Are you under the impression that the sky and satellite space is unregulated, by the people's representatives?
I don't think I heard it addressed even once on public media during major elections.
You'll probably say: "then change your representatives or do some lobying or choose representatives who care about this".
This is a little more complicated than this: people are busy with hundreds of other things when they vote, and the fact these questions are never addressed in public debates should not give an 'implicit consent' about "Ok, tech companies, you can do whatever you want with our sky. Dozens of thousands of new satelites? Ok, no problem, please do!"
> these questions are never addressed in public debates should not give an 'implicit consent'
In a western society whatever is not forbidden is allowed. In more oppresive regimes whatever is not allowed is forbidden.
There has been some press about e.g. SpaceX affecting astronomers, but by and large people don't care. And without the people pressuring them to not do it, the people's representatives, or people appointed by them, make their best judgement.
Regulators have the authority to grant launch and orbit permission just like the DMV (presumably) has authority on a whole bunch of driving license issuance rules and decisions. And how there aren't town halls to get input about the number of fire exits a building has to have.