Solve This X: How Google Plans its Moonshots for Way Out Science

Posted on February 15, 2015


Solve for X is Google’s advanced research arm, planning ‘moonshot’ advances for science in everything from computing to the environment

Delving into Google’s less well known projects the other week turned up the rather odd sounding ‘Solve for X‘. It turns out that ‘X’ projects are part of the ‘out there’ research arm of Google involved with creating tomorrow’s technologies today. On show are a huge variety of what Google calls ‘moonshots’ – science that is within our reach but may be at the boundaries of knowledge. Several of the most interesting projects involve computing, robotics and the environment. Each project is led by a ‘pioneer’ who gives details of the research area and any ways that other students or researchers can become involved.

Blow up and nano-robots
San Francisco’s scientist collective Otherlab is working on a wide range of research projects that includes fabric exoskeleton systems for humans, a solar tracker for solar energy panels and an updated bike for better urban transport. Robotics is a high priority for Otherlab and its Solve for X project is based around low cost inflatable robots. Yes, blow-up robots: pneubotics. Right now the motors and drives that provide strength and movement for robots – called actuators – are heavy and clunky, they limit dexterity and speed. Using air-powered flexible materials allows Otherlab to create robots whose limbs are powered like muscle, without the expensive materials of traditional actuators.

At the other end of the scale to large inflatables are nano-robots. Surgical experts have long talked about the possibility of sending nano-robots into the body to carry out surgery. Researcher Ido Bachelet’s moonshot looks at a way to get around the problem by injecting the body with specially programmed DNA that can go to the site of injury or illness and train the body’s cells to carry out repair. These blocks of DNA will be what Ido calls “logic-guided nanorobots and machines” operating on “biological computing” principles. A human clinical trial on using DNA robots to treat cancer has been approved in one critically ill patient, but Ido sees the technique being used in future to screen healthy patients for cancer.

We have the power
Energy for everyone is the promise of nuclear fusion. Scientists at American aerospace and advanced technology makers Lockheed Martin say they have already made a breakthrough where the reactions that take place at the heart of our sun can be manufactured to provide clean nuclear energy, within a decade. Lockheed’s fusion reactor would take hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium) and produces enough energy to power a small city without any nuclear waste. The prospect of virtually unlimited clean energy is described in pioneer Charles Chase’s moonshot.

Plastic no more
Creating plastics that can be recycled is the aim of pioneer Molly Morse. This is a beautifully thought out project that uses the greenhouse gas methane to make biodegradable plastics, used in packaging and agricultural or construction materials, that can be then be sent to landfill or a digester and broken down using bacteria. Molly hopes to create plastics with better material properties than traditional petrochemical plastics, without the harmful environmental effects. As a mum, Molly describes how her tolerance for the harmful plastics has lessened after the birth of her son. She obviously wants to create a world where oil-based plastics become a thing of the past.

Computer Love
Computers inspired by the architecture of the brain may be able to simulate the way its networks of neurons work, says Duygu Kuzum. Turkish researcher Duygu set out to design a computer chip that works more like the brain’s synapses, with electronic signals that vary in strength like a dimmer switch, instead of the 1 or 0 (on or off) of digital circuits. “We cannot 100 percent replicate the brain,” says Kuzum but we may “build a system that’s more brain-inspired.” Her prototype could lead to more energy-efficient, smaller portable computers that could process complex data such as visual and auditory information more easily. In turn this type of computer could be used in neural implants and prosthetic limbs that interface better between computer controls and living brain tissue. Robocop, here we come.

Switching computers from metal wiring and switches to light switches – based on the science of photonics – is the subject of Prashant Jain’s moonshot. Moore’s Law observes that the number of transistors in an integrated computer chip or circuit doubles roughly every two years. This creates a problem, because as circuits become smaller the electronic principles around energy and power mean that chips will hit a minimum where they will no longer work. Transistors are now so small they are measured as tiny fractions of an atom (quantum scale).

One proposed way around it is to make circuits like neural circuits with distributed power and better energy efficiency (as prototyped by Duygu), but the other is to use light to transmit information instead, using photonic switches called wave guides. Light particles – photons – move much quicker than electrons and Prashant’s team has invented an optical transistor from metallic nanoparticles to help create optical computing circuits.

Networking faster than light
Networks that operate faster than the speed of light are impossible aren’t they? Not if pioneer Alexander Wissner Gross has his way. The solution to the finite speed of light ‘problem’ and building faster networks is to put servers in geographically remote areas – what Solve for X terms “a nervous system for the planet”. His technology, he says, will create “a new type of natural resource”.