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For Google's X lab, it takes 3 things to become a moonshot

Astro Teller, the head of Alphabet's secretive research lab X, explains how it chooses projects and avoids working on tech that doesn't matter.

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There are three requirements for a project to become one of X's moonshots, Astro Teller said.

James Martin/CNET

What exactly is a moonshot?

It isn't just another tech buzzword, said Astro Teller, captain of moonshots for the experimental lab formerly known as Google X. There's a strategy behind it.

Now called simply X, the lab is the part of Google parent company, Alphabet, focused on taking big swings at big problems in the world. That includes self-driving cars and Project Loon, which uses weather balloons to bring internet connectivity to remote areas. Not all moonshots land. One called project called Foghorn, aimed at turning seawater into liquid fuel, died in January. And Google Glass, its experiment in smart eyewear, was also deemed a dud.

Before a project can be called a moonshot, it has to sit at the intersection of three things: a huge problem, a radical solution and a breakthrough technology. Getting to that intersection, Teller said, isn't necessarily about having the most money, trying the hardest, or flat out being smarter than everyone else. That explains why X doesn't just start working on a broad idea like ending poverty or creating a frictionless material.

"We can be weird. We can be brave. We can be creative," Teller said Wednesday at at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

With Project Loon, the big problem is 4 billion people in the world with little or no internet connectivity, the technology is the telecommunications network, and the solution is delivering it via weather balloon, of all things.

Teller also discussed the nature of moonshots -- they don't always work out and it's vital to know when to pull the plug.

"Fall in love with the problem," he said, "not the technology."