What is Amazon Grand Challenge? Understanding Amazon’s moonshot lab

Amazon’s Grand Challenge, not to be confused with its Grand Tour, is its top-secret research laboratory where scientists work on groundbreaking projects, including the ultimate medical goal – finding a cure for cancer.

How secret can Amazon Grand Challenge be if we know about it?

Good point. It’s fair to assume that all the tech giants have similar departments devoted to “inventing the future”. And while the projects are secret, the companies are happy to tease the world with glimpses of what might be possible.

In other words, they’re doing top-secret research, but they’re desperately keen for you to know because it makes them seem both virtuous and cutting edge. Among the tech community these hush- hush projects are known as “moonshots”.

Why moonshots?

Moonshots refers to, perhaps, the most ambitious human project of all time – sending a man to the moon. Eager to be seen in the same light as John F Kennedy (“we choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”), Google uses “moonshot” to describe research that’s speculative, bold and ambitious. This research, developed by its X division, forgoes short-term profits in favour of ideas that could “make the world a radically better place”.

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So what do we know about Amazon’s “moonshots”?

One of Amazon’s moonshots is using machine learning to help prevent and cure cancers. For the past three years Amazon’s engineers have worked with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle to analyse vast amounts of data. There’s much hope around the world that progress in artificial intelligence (AI) will lead to breakthroughs in cancer treatment.

In May, Theresa May pledged millions of pounds to the NHS to develop AI systems for diagnosing cancer earlier, potentially saving thousands of lives every year. A recent report estimated the NHS could save £: a year by adopting robots and AI.

Who’s in charge of the Grand Challenge?

Iranian-born Babak Parviz, who was poached from Google in 2014, where he’d created the ill-fated Google Glass spectacles.

At a recent healthcare conference, Parviz mentioned a project that has been worked on “for some period of time and…relates to what happens to older people”. He may have meant the cancer research, but tackling dementia is another possibility. He recruits Amazon staff to his projects with adverts quoting the famous US astronomer Carl Sagan: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known”.

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Isn’t that rather pretentious?

Yes, and it’s in keeping with the absurd self-importance of tech firms. They are simply doing what companies have done forever: confidential research and development. But that doesn’t sound exciting enough for the likes of Google and Amazon.

Google, for example, doesn’t just build new products, it looks for “the intersection of a big problem”, then proposes a solution “that sounds impossible today, almost like science fiction… even if its final form is five to 10 years away and obscured over the horizon”. It’s all rather pompous from a company that makes 90% of its money doing something as mundane as selling advertising.

As for Amazon, we might start believing it can fight cancer when it solves a more everyday problem.

What’s that?

Sending items in packaging that doesn’t fill up several wheelie bins. There is hope. Parviz’s team has worked on new methods for delivering items, including dropping them inside a house, or a car’s boot. Downsizing its cardboard boxes may prove the grandest challenge of all.

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