Google has launched a new program devoted to fostering discussions and ideas among leaders in the science and technology industries. The project, dubbed ““Solve for X,” aims to be a seeding ground for solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.
The site is meant to inspire “moonshot” thinking, out-of-the-box technologies, and projects that might seem closer to science fiction than real-life solutions to global problems. The program hopes to sponsor thinkers and doers that can highlight a widespread problem and present a concrete and radical solution using breakthrough science and technologies, according to Google’s Astro Teller and Megan Smith.
At the inaugural Solve for X event last week, some of the issues addressed included environmental sustainability with disposed electronics, the global water crisis, and improving patient care in global health systems.
Though still growing, Solve for X’s website has a few videos from the first event, which attracted 50 scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs from around the globe. Google hopes to have a few more similar events each year.
With its overall goal of promoting scientific and technological advances both within the community and to a more mainstream audience, the initiative has been compared to TED, the non-profit, crowd-sourced think tank that showcases similar talks and videos on its video podcasts and website.
Google and Solve for X didn’t respond to our requests for comment on the upcoming events or talks.
Internet as Collaborative Tool
As the Internet grows bigger, it’s increasingly being used as a tool for collaborative scientific efforts across global research communities. That kind of team effort is going on in labs across the world, but TED and other collaborative programs have been successful not just in highlighting potentially breakthrough research, but also in delivering it to a more mainstream crowd.
With contacts in the science, technology and engineering fields and a popular online platform and publicity resources, Google is in a good place to help Solve for X become a name among the top online science showcases, according to Cameron Neylon, a UK-based research scientist at the Science and Technology Facilities Council.
“Solve for X is an interesting move and a logical step beyond some existing initiatives, TED, the Foo and Bar camps, and other events that aim to bring people together. It makes a lot of sense for Google to try to leverage their existing technology to see if they can take this more effectively into an online space,” Neylon told TechNewsWorld.
A Web Too Tangled
While those collaborations are useful for generating ideas and widening the scope of research, the Web is such a gigantic forum that it can be difficult to zero in on problems and identify the viable solutions.
“The Web, obviously, is another way to bring everyone to the table, but the bandwidth is actually too high — just go and read the comments on a popular news item on the Web,” Gary Cottrell, professor in the Computer Science & Engineering Department at the University of California in San Diego, told TechNewsWorld. “There are simply too many, and there is too much noise. So there has to be a way to solve that problem — too many people at the table, and identifying the people you actually want to listen to, and those that you want to tune out.”
Online forums such as Solve for X, then, can wind up serving as a platform for airing ideas rather than leading to concrete, monumental change.
“The big problem with sites like Solve for X — and TED and related sites — is how to facilitate real large-scale collaboration,” Blair McIntyre, associate professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, told TechNewsWorld. “We know it’s possible to build technology and support distributed collaboration on small teams, especially when folks are invested in the solution and otherwise motivated to contribute constructively. But, at big scales, it’s unclear how you can create something that can filter out that noise.”
The challenge of filtering through Web content and facilitating real-life solutions, combined with the challenge of encouraging less altruistic researchers to share groundbreaking ideas publicly, means Solve for X could have an uncertain future as far as generating true results. However, unlike some economic ventures, even a failed end result may not be catastrophic.
“Worst case scenario, they get some good discussion and high-quality video being uploaded to their new social service — and take the best of that video to create a new destination site. Best case, the combination of destination, eyeballs and social functionality leads to real innovation coming from new and unexpected places,” said Neylon.
Filling in the missing piece of how to get the thinkers and presenters into acting will be the challenge with Solve for X.
“The real challenge will actually be whether this can translate into appreciably different or more rapid innovation. My gut feeling is that the technology just isn’t quite there yet to make this work. In particular I think we’re missing a bit of social mediation and discovery required. But I’d really love to proven wrong. Someone’s going to get this to work soon and this is a real interesting step in that direction,” said Neylon.