What is a moonshot?

What is a moonshot?

Moonshots are crazy ideas. They are radical solutions to gigantic problems that will dramatically change the future.

Google has built a “moonshot factory.” Their mission (or ambition as they call it) is to invent and launch technologies that they hope, someday, make the world a radically better place.

And their process is pretty straightforward:

This is our blueprint for X moonshots: we look for the intersection of a big problem, a radical solution, and breakthrough technology. We start with a large problem in the world that if solved could improve the lives of millions or even billions of people. Then we propose a radical solution that sounds impossible today, almost like science fiction. Lastly, we look for a technology breakthrough that exists today; this gives us the necessary hope that the solution we’re looking for is possible, even if its final form is five to ten years away and obscured over the horizon.

Part of building the future, or at least a version of it, is to work on problems that really matter and find solutions that can significantly impact life as we know it. That is the challenge — figuring out what the future looks like and then building things that help get us there faster.

Elon Musk shares a framework for this in one of his recent talks. It’s the idea of “accelerating the inevitable.” He uses Tesla, one of his companies, as a use case. Here’s how (not his exact words):

It is widely agreed upon that in some discrete amount of time in the future, there will be electric cars everywhere. In fact, it’d be hard to find someone who completely disagreed with that statement, especially if they had unlimited time to see that transition.

Now, the framework and concept that Musk uses is simple: he asks, how can we accelerate that inevitable change? The world depends on electric cars existing, we need it now. How then, can we increase the pace of progress and build them, today?

That is the discussion of the future that more and more people are having. We tend to think a lot about the future. Even though most of us cannot really control it.

If you ask a random person to make a prediction, chances are they’d come to some conclusion that supports their answer. Whether it’s sports, technology, even politics — we all as humans, for some reason or another, have this collective interest in figuring out and dissecting what may become of what lies ahead.

The interesting thing is that, as humans, we are generally pretty bad at this estimation. Rather, we have poor depth, meaning we have no idea how long it will take until a technology arrives. This effect actually has a name, it’s called Amara’s Law and it states that:

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

I find Amara’s law fascinating. Surely, we cannot all be making these mistakes. There must be some of us, in society, who are deep experts in certain fields who truly understand the future.

For example, take virtual reality, a “breakthrough technology” that has been around for 20+ years. It was being called breakthrough in the 90s just as it is today. When the heck is it going to break through? (probably soon).

In this example, most technologists have been sitting at the tipping point of VR for years just waiting for it to come through. They probably expected this technology years ago. At the opposite end of the spectrum, take my Grandma. Someone who has no interest or real deep understanding of virtual reality. If you would ask her today about the likelihood of its effects, you’d probably get something close to negligible.

Who is right?

The answer is that we are all wrong — as long as we fail to consider the opinion and perspective of the other side of the table. It is far too easy to get wrapped up in our own bubble and think about our perspective — rarely do we consider an alternative view. That is why it is often refreshing to hear the contrarian opinion, even if you do not agree with it.

Anyways, back on track. What is the point of this?

Well, to give you some context. I’m really invested and fascinated by the future. It is exciting. Terrifying. Complex. Simple. All at once. I live in both the “tech” world but also the “I have never written a line of code” world and heard both stories.

Those worlds never clash. They never debate. They live in their own bubbles for years expecting virtual reality tomorrow when it really will not be here for 20 years (it’s here now and coming soon). Heck, these worlds do not even know about each other.

What happens when you clash these worlds? Magic.

I tried this idea last semester at my school. I brought students from engineering — business — art — medical — etc, and put them in a room and asked them questions about the future. These are really really smart and passionate students. They’ve worked at big companies like McKinsey, Google, SpaceX, but also small companies you’ve never heard of. Some of them, however, have never had an internship or job. That is the point. I invited people with strong opinions about different topics. The conversation was super interesting.

One week we talked about self driving cars, the next CRISPR, after that education. The list goes on and on. It was amazing.

Of course, limited sample size and a convenience bias (all these students go to Ideally we’d have a more diverse group of thinkers. But still, it was awesome! I learned more in these bull sessions than I did in any of my other classes or clubs.

And we are doing it again. And here is our brand new blog.


So what is Moonshots?

Round table discussions about the future. We’ll talk about anything important. The group is generally 8–10 people and one person tries to moderate / lead direction.

People who come to the sessions will write some thoughts after and publish it to this blog.

Why do this?

We realized that classroom discussions rarely expand on current events / experimental fields so we decided to make a place for it. I also just wrote a ton of words about why up there^.

Anything else?

“Moonshots” is not a formal club. There is no dress code. There are no “right” thoughts and no wrong thoughts. There are no club dues.

For now, we are only doing this on campus (at Washington University in St. Louis. But email me and you can start your own and contribute to this blog). We are going to have a fb group where we share some articles/ideas/thoughts.

oh yeah, and this