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A visit to X: The tech moonshot factory is working on climate change

Our “Marketplace Tech” series “How We Survive” explores how tech can help the world adapt to climate change. In this installment, we look at how Alphabet’s X is focusing on climate tech.

We went to the company that thrives on tackling giant problems: X. Formerly Google X, it’s the division of Alphabet devoted to moonshots — big, crazy technology bets that hopefully turn into companies. Its climate-related graduates include Dandelion, which harnesses heat from geothermal energy, and Malta, which uses salt to store excess energy produced from solar and wind farms.

I spoke with Astro Teller, who leads X and whose official title is captain of moonshots. He also goes everywhere at work on Rollerblades. Why Rollerblades? The X office is a former mall — it’s huge, and Teller decided it would be more efficient to roll places instead of walking. This is how he thinks about most things, with a filter that is ruthlessly efficient but still creative. I asked him how much of the work at X is focused on climate. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Astro Teller: We certainly don’t limit ourselves to the climate crisis, but there’s no problem in the world that is, metaphorically and literally, burning as bright today. Roughly half of the things that are here and are brewing are connected in one way or another to the climate crisis, either trying to mitigate it or trying to adapt.

Molly Wood: Tell me about some of the things that you are working on.

Teller: Food production. The world is starting to change faster and faster because of the climate crisis, and the tools that farmers have for understanding their crops, when all of those things are changing rapidly, it is not realistic to think that somehow the farmers of the world are going to cope elegantly with this rapid change. We have prototype buggies, which move through the fields, understand these crops and help farmers and breeders to learn about their fields in a resolution they’ve never had before, take care of their fields, and even change what their fields are going to be in future years, what crops they have. Having an agricultural brain, I think that is very much in the adaptation part of the space.

Wood: I’d love to get your thoughts then on the tech industry at large, because they’ve frankly been hesitant to invest in a big way in something that clearly has a market and an existential imperative. And I wonder what you think the responsibility is there, or if you think the solutions will come from outside [Silicon] Valley?

Teller: I certainly hope many solutions come from outside the valley. [If] it’s probably going to lose money … it looks kind of shaky … but it’s so good for the world. I just don’t believe [in] that. And it’s not because I don’t care. My version of caring is just a very hard-nosed, practical caring. I care so much to solve the problem that I’m willing to be dispassionate now in the name of getting these problems solved over 10 or 20 years. The Silicon Valley may not have a time horizon, which is conducive to solving certain problems. I don’t know what to say except good luck to them and we believe in longer time horizons.

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