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Singularity University and the philosophy of the moonshot

Michael Fichardt recently spent 10 weeks at Singularity University. Located in Silicon Valley, the institution is part university, part think-tank, and part business-incubator, which aims is to “educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” In a series of five articles, Fichardt details his experiences at Singularity University, ranging from the ideas and technologies he saw to the lessons he learned there. In this, the fourth article in the series, he outlines the “moonshot” mentality that’s changing the future of technology and humanity as a whole.

On 12 September 1962, in a famous speech, John F Kennedy said the following: “…we choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win”.

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Kennedy was talking about the challenge of taking a moonshot, of going somewhere no one had been before, of doing what might previously of have been thought of as impossible. Of taking a shot at the moon! This is a term that Google has adopted to describe audacious projects that can change the world.

Google [x]

Larry Page, cofounder of Google, talks about improving things by 10x when most companies are prepared to improve by 10 percent. In Page’s view, a 10 percent improvement means you are basically doing the same thing. He sees incremental improvement as a guarantee for your company to die a slow death, especially in a world of exponential change. Page believes that only 10x thinking will enable you to develop products and services that are 10x better than the competition. A 10x or thousand percent improvement requires a completely new way of approaching a problem, a reinvention of what previously might have been thought of as the solution.

This moonshot mentality is what is behind Google[x] (or possibly to be renamed [x] after Google’s recent restructuring), a separate company established within Google in 2010. It’s mission to identify and develop products and services in what was once only thought possible in science fiction. Famous products coming from Google[x] include: Google Glass, glasses that act like a wearable computer system; self-driving motor cars; smart contact lenses that are able to measure glucose levels in tears for people who have diabetes; and Project Loon, a project that is using hot air balloons to connect the world to the internet.

Google [x]’s autonomous car

In an interview published in Wired magazine, in 2012, Larry Page is quoted as saying: “Investors always worry: Oh, you guys are going to spend too much money on these crazy things. But those are now the things they’re most excited about—YouTube, Chrome, Android. If you’re not doing some things that are crazy, then you’re doing the wrong things”.

Space X

Elon Musk’s Space X is great example of another moonshot company. In 2001, Musk dreamt up the idea of developing an experimental greenhouse on Mars, in an attempt to raise public interest in space exploration and therefore increase the budget allocated to NASA. He however soon realised that even with an increased budget, travel to Mars was absurdly expensive due the costs of the rockets needed for the journey.

After a few failed trips to Russia, in an attempt to buy some Russian rockets, Musk realised that he could start a company that could build its own affordable rockets. He used vertical integration where more than 80% of the rocket is produced in-house, and a modular approach to software engineering to reduce costs by a factor of 10. A key principle in bringing down the cost of space travel was to find a way to reuse the rockets for more than one space mission.

Since its founding in 2001, Space X has achieved many firsts including first privately funded company to successfully launch and recover a spacecraft and first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. Along with Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation it has a large development contract with NASA. In January 2015, Space X raised US$1 billion in funding from Google and Fidelity, valuing itself at US$12 billion.

Space X CRS-1 Falcon 9 launches on 8 October 2012

On its website, Space X describes itself as follows: “Space X designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and launches. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionise the space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets”.


In 1919, New York hotelier Raymond Orteig posted a US$25 000 prize for the first person to fly either non-stop from New York to Paris or Paris to New York. Orteig was attempting to encourage aviators to push the boundaries of what was known possible in aviation. In 1925, after its original term expired, Orteig reissued the prize. The advancements in aviation over the preceding years meant that many experienced aviators entered the competition.

In 1927, a young unknown 25 year old US Air Mail pilot, named Charles Lindbergh also entered the competition and won. Lindbergh pursued a more risky strategy than his competitors. He used a single engine aircraft instead of a tri-motor, allowing him to save weight and carry more fuel. He decided to fly solo to avoid possible personality clashes. He also made the decision to fly into weather conditions that were clearing which his competitors thought were unsafe. After winning the prize Lindbergh was quoted as saying: “What kind of man would live where there is no danger? I don’t believe in taking foolish chances. But nothing can be accomplished by not taking a chance at all.”

In 1995, after reading Lindbergh’s autobiography, Peter Diamandis asked himself the question: Why are there no prizes today to encourage scientific progress and innovation? He set out to change this and developed the XPRIZE Foundation.

In 1996, he offered US$10-million for the first privately funded team that could build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilometres into space twice within a two week period. The prize was later named the Ansari XPRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight, after the sponsor Anousheh Ansari, the first Muslim and first self-funded women to fly into space. It attracted 26 teams from seven countries around the world. As with the Orteig Prize, the Ansari XPRIZE attracted significant more combined investment from the competitors (US$100 million) than the US$10 million purse – a leveraging effect that is the hallmark of most of the XPRIZES.

Ansari XPRIZE winner: Space Ship One

Post the Ansari XPRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight, the XPRIZE Foundation has launched numerous other XPRIZES. Active competitions include:

  • Google Lunar XPRIZE — The prize will be awarded to the first team that is able to land a privately funded rover (robot) on the moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit back high definition images. The first team that completes the mission will win US$20 million and the second team US$5 million.
  • Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE — The development of a handheld device that is capable of diagnosing 16 health conditions health conditions independent of a heath care worker or facility. The prize is US$10-million.
  • Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE — Challenges teams to develop mobile applications that increase literacy skills among adult learners in just 12 months. The prize is worth US$7million.
  • Global Learning XPRIZE — The development of open source and scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within 18 months. The prize is worth US$15 million.


Science and technology author, Steven Johnson, talks about this concept of the adjacent possible. He says: “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself”.

It is this adjacent possible that Google [x], Space X and the XPRIZE are exploring. They are shooting at the possibilities of the future. As Kennedy inspired America to go to the moon, they are inspiring us all to take up the challenge of solving grand problems, of doing what might previously have been thought of as impossible. In Kennedy’s words: “it is a choice to go the moon not because it is easy but because the challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win”.

Next week, I will write a post, which pulls together some of my developing reflections, from my time at Singularity University.

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