The future according to Alphabet Moonshots: From Calico to X
Google is building the future – or, should we say, Alphabet is. The company formerly known as Google is using the billions of dollars it earns every quarter to build internet-supplying balloons, driverless cars and smart contact lenses – and is diligently studying thousands of rodents to help all of us live longer. Welcome to the strange world of Alphabet Moonshots.
Alphabet Moonshots – or “other bets” as they’re called in Alphabet’s financial reports – aren’t designed to pay off anytime soon. Over the last quarter alone, they cost the company $722 million. However, as Google co-founder Larry Page explains in Alphabet’s launch letter, “you need to be a bit uncomfortable to stay relevant.”
Investors needn’t feel uneasy, as Alphabet Moonshots are set against the overall company profit of $7.8 billion for the quarter. But, Alphabet has already started to shed some of its less successful side projects, suggesting the holding company will only tolerate so much discomfort. In the past year, it sold satellite imaging firm Terra Bella and terrifying robotics division Boston Dynamics, while shuttering down solar-powered, internet-by-drone idea Titan and modular smartphone Project Ara.
Here are the Alphabet Moonshots that the company has held onto – and what they may mean for our future health, cities, vehicles and more.
Advanced Technologies and Projects
Part of Alphabet’s hardware development labs, ATAP created Project Ara, the now-defunct modular smartphone. It’s currently working on Project Jacquard, a method of weaving technology into fabrics to create interactive clothing and touch-sensitive textiles. Then there’s Project Soli, a sensor that uses radar to track minuscule motions.
Wealthy geniuses who want to live forever? Sounds like the bad guys in a comic book, but the California Life Company (Calico) isn’t fiction and its goal is to understand ageing to help extend our lifespans. Little is known about its work – which is contrary to how such medical research usually operates, with transparency and collaboration between academics – although reports reveal its research includes experiments extending the lives of worms, a seven-year study of 1,000 mice to watch how a calorie-restricted diet changes how they age, and investigating why naked mole rats live ten times as long as other rodents.
In other words, it’s early days. Real progress will be a long way off, and that’s something Calico itself admits, with chief scientific officer David Botstein telling MIT Technology Review not to expect any breakthroughs for a decade or more. Here’s hoping Calico’s age-defying solutions land before they’re too late for us.
This British startup was snapped up by Google in 2014 for £400 million, earning the ire of data regulators with its NHS projects. However, it’s received plaudits for its AlphaGo AI, which beat human experts at the ancient board game in an echo of the famous chess match pitting IBM’s Deep Blue against grandmaster Garry Kasparov. DeepMind’s latest artificial intelligence has an imagination, which could make it handy for developing software, the company has said.
This is what Google calls its driverless cars – and Waymo is suing Uber for allegedly stealing its laser-vision technology. While automated automotives feel like the ultimate tech of the future, Google’s first prototype hit the road in 2009, with its first full driverless ride in October 2015.
Before the driverless efforts were spun out of Google’s labs into its own Alphabet division, the project was eyeing a fully automated vehicle without user-accessible brake pedals or steering wheel. Those plans have been left by the side of the road in favour of Waymo working with existing automakers on bringing self-driving technology to standard cars. That small pivot has paid off: shortly thereafter, Fiat Chrysler signed a deal with the company to include its LIDAR-based system and maps into Pacifica minivans. Reports suggest that discussions with Toyota, Ford and Honda haven’t yet been fruitful.
Half of the world’s population lives in cities, and that’s set to rise to two-thirds within decades, worsening urban problems from traffic congestion to higher rents. Sidewalk Labs is Alphabet’s urban innovation project, hoping to solve city challenges with sensors, connectivity and data. So far, that’s been largely limited to free Wi-Fi in London and New York, and its “transportation platform” called Flow, which gathers traffic data and analyses it to suggest better bus routes, flag available parking, and tweak lights.
Sidewalk’s next plan could be building its own smart-city testbed from scratch – reports suggest it may be working on a new district in Toronto – to bring its vision of an urban future to life. That could include local renewable energy plants, fast-building techniques, and smart traffic lights that analyse pedestrians, cyclists and cars using computer vision to ease traffic.
Collect health data and put it to use: that’s Verily’s raison d’etre. Kind of like Google for the human body. The health-tech firm’s most famous creation to date is its smart contact lenses, which feature sensors and wireless comms to monitor and transmit glucose levels. Other devices include a connected patch to monitor glucose for people with diabetes, sensor attachments for utensils to make them easier to use for people with tremors, and the Study Watch, a smart wearable with top-end sensors and week-long battery life that aims to better collect medical data.
Verily’s latest project is Debug, which engineered sterile mosquitoes for release in areas affected by bug-spread disease, with a first trial in Fresno, California. The sterile males don’t bite, but they do help cut down on reproduction, reducing the numbers of disease-carrying mosquitoes that are targeting humans. Such work may not pay off anytime soon for investors, but it has the potential to save the lives of millions of people killed by diseases such as malaria and dengue every year.
This lab may sound like somewhere you’d find Tony Stark, but that’s probably what its leader had in mind: he goes by the moniker Astro Teller, after all. X is the home to Alphabet’s early-stage trials, with graduates including Waymo driverless cars, Google Watch and Verily. X is where you’ll also find Project Loon, which delivers internet connectivity to remote areas via massive balloons, and Makani, a kite rigged with wind turbines. There’s also Alphabet’s drone-delivery research scheme, Project Wing.
Not all projects are successful, though, and X has no qualms killing off failed ideas. Foghorn made carbon-neutral fuel from seawater; it worked, but was deemed too expensive. High costs also sunk Calcifer, a “lighter than air” ship to reduce shipping times and costs. What else X might be working on remains a mystery – as if the name doesn’t make it intriguing enough.
…Plus GV, CapitalG and Jigsaw
Alphabet can’t make every aspect of the future within its own labs. For the innovations happening outside the company, it has investment firms and an accelerator. GV is Alphabet’s venture capital arm, while CapitalG focuses on social innovations such as health. Jigsaw is Google’s tech accelerator, backing projects as diverse as the Against Violent Extremism Network and uProxy, a peer-to-peer proxy tool to let users access the open internet from repressive countries.
Image: coniferconifer used under Creative Commons