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Google X Head: 'I'm Afraid of People's Reactions to Technology'

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Google X's moonshot division is in the business of pushing technology's capabilities to their limits.

REUTERS | Laura Buckman

"When we say moonshots, what we mean is that we're shooting for things that are 10 times better, not incremental improvements," Astro Teller, Google X's "Captain of Moonshots' told the audience at his keynote SXSW Panel this year, Moonshots and Reality. Current moonshots include Project Loon, which aims to connect the entire global population to the digital world through a network of balloons, Project Ara, a development effort to create a modular hardware ecosystem, self-driving cars and (until recently) Google Glass.

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The projects span industries, but share common characteristics and a common goal: they work to find a solution to a big problem that affects many people, they propose to fix the problem in an innovative way, and they incorporate "a hard technical thing that we think we can maneuver and solve that would make a science fiction sounding proposal possible."

Some of these moonshots, particularly Google Glass and to a lesser extent, self-driving cars, have been met with resistance from the public; a common objection to Google Glass is that it violates personal privacy, which baffles Teller. "I'm amazed by how sensitively people respond to some of the privacy issues," Teller said. While he understands overarching privacy concerns, "Google Glass did not move the needle, it was literally a rounding error on the number of cameras in your life."

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In general, the public's response to new, cutting-edge technological advancements concerns him. "I'm afraid of people's reactions to technology," he said bluntly, noting that although technology's rate of change is rapidly accelerating, our laws, regulations and social norms aren't keeping pace: "That's what makes me afraid. Because when those things start to widen, as a society we get scared, and scared people do dumb things."

A telling example of the way regulation often lags behind technology: Google's self-driving cars – which don't have steering wheels, acceleration pedals or breaks, but do have mirrors and windshields. "I have a sadly good answer…that's the law," Teller said when asked why the mirrors were included. "You're not required to have a steering wheel, but you are required to have rear-view mirrors."

While Teller said that he understands society's concerns – "I'm not saying all technologies are OK" – he believes the pace at which we digest, process and respond to technological advancements needs to speed up. "I would rather we keep pace and feel confident rather than afraid, because then we can make good decisions about how we want technology to affect our lives."

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