In Depth: Alpha Bets: 12 amazing moonshots burning through Google’s billions

12 amazing Google moonshots

Google’s newly established parent company, Alphabet, became the world’s most valuable company in February, shunting Apple from the top spot. It’s making billions, money which isn’t just lining the pockets of the uber rich but being sunk into X projects (formerly Google X) that go far beyond Android, search and autonomous cars.

Google calls them “other bets” in its accounts and “moonshots” in conversation. They’re the projects into which Google sinks its billions, knowing that many of them will never work out.

But the ones that do work could just change the world. Here are the most interesting moonshots that Google’s parent company Alphabet is betting on.

1. Deepmind

Deepmind

Google bought artificial intelligence firm Deepmind in 2014. Deepmind uses neural networks to make machines that can learn. So, for example, Deepmind can already beat humans in 31 different games and will move onto more challenging tasks, such as fragging human players in Quake.

We’re not making this up.

2. Nest

Nest

Nest is one of two “other bets” that actually bring in money, but analysts say it isn’t profitable. When Google bought the home control firm in 2014 it paid ten times Nest’s annual revenue, and while Nest is doing well it certainly hasn’t recouped its $3.2 billion price tag.

For Alphabet, though, Nest represents a foothold in the could-be-massive home automation market as well as the equally exciting clean energy market.

3. Google Fiber

Google Fiber

We said Nest was one of two moonshots bringing in money. Google Fiber is the other. It’s Google’s US fibre broadband service, which provides fibre broadband including free broadband for public housing and which aims to drive down the cost of broadband by encouraging US ISPs to follow suit. That’s obviously something that benefits Google’s core businesses of search and advertising. More people online means more ads and clicks.

4. Calico

Calico

How’s this for ambition? Calico wants to cure death, or at least keep it at bay for a very long time. The “curing death” bit was CEO Larry Page’s description, not ours, and the organisation’s aim is to pursue the goal of extending human life. In the short term that means working with pharmaceutical firms to help develop and bring to market new drugs to battle conditions associated with old age, such as Alzheimer’s.

5. Project Ara

Ara

Project Ara wants to turn smartphones into PCs. Instead of a single slab of plastic and glass whose specs are set by the manufacturer, Ara devices are modular. Fancy a better camera, more storage or a faster processor? Just swap out the old bit and stick a new one in.

The goal isn’t just to make phones smarter; it’s to bring down costs (again, something that benefits Google: more smartphones means more Android, which means more use of Google services) and to reduce electronic waste. Google’s goal is to have 6 billion people using Ara devices.

6. Verily

Verily

The organisation formerly known as Google Life Science, Verily wants to do to the human body what Google did to the internet: collect and organise all the information possible and use that information to improve the way we do things.

To do that it’s developing devices such as smart contact lenses for monitoring eye problems, wearable sensors for multiple sclerosis research and devices to help control tremors in people with Parkinson’s disease. It’s also working on medical robots.

7. Project Loon

Project Loon

Not so much pie in the sky as Wi-Fi in the sky, Project Loon hopes to bring internet access to remote and rural areas through high-altitude balloons that float 11 miles above the ground. Google says that two-thirds of the world isn’t currently connected to the internet, and Loon is one of the ways it hopes to change that.

8. X (Google X)

Google Car

Project Loon is one of X’s projects. X, formerly Google X, is Alphabet’s skunkworks: it’s where Google’s maddest, most far-fetched ideas are taken very seriously indeed. Self-driving cars are an X project, as is Google Glass. X has experimented with or considered developing jetpacks, hoverboards, space elevators and even teleportation devices, but sadly those projects have been canned due to impracticality.

9. GV (Google Ventures)

Google Ventures

GV is another rebranded Google division: it was formerly known as Google Ventures. As its old name suggests it’s a venture capital division that invests in prominent new businesses, and its current focus is on machine learning, artificial intelligence and life sciences. You may recognise some of the firms it’s put money into. The list includes Uber, Medium, Cloudera and Slack as well as robotics firms and clean energy companies.

10. Project Wing

Google Drones

What’s that coming over the hill? From next year, it could be a Wing. Project Wing is another wheeze from X, and it aims to launch a commercial drone delivery business in the US in 2017. Amazon is up to something similar for its own deliveries, although it faces the same issues that Wing does – not just practicality but legislation.

The US is famously hands-off when it comes to regulation, however, so skies full of Amazon and Google drones could come sooner than we think. Maybe they’ll fight each other.

11. Energy Kites

Makani

Makani Power started off as a spin-off from the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and was acquired by Google in 2013. Its energy kites are a new kind of wind turbine, tethered kites that use a fraction of the material of traditional wind turbines and that generate considerably more energy too. They’re particularly well suited to areas that aren’t easy to bring power to using more traditional energy transmission methods.

12. Robots

Boston Dynamics

Google acquired scary-robot maker Boston Dynamics back in 2013, and that was one of several acquisitions that helped create Google’s multi-million dollar robotics division. That division is working on a project dubbed “Replicant”, which aims to create a consumer robot by 2020.

Replicant was originally headed by Android creator Andy Rubin, but his departure in 2014 left the robotics division in disarray. According to Business Insider, Rubin’s departure meant that “there was no one who knew how to tie all the disparate acquisitions together.”

Despite Boston Dynamics’ military connections Google is adamant that its robots won’t be for military use. The goal is apparently to create a robot assistant that doesn’t fall into the uncanny valley and freak everybody out.

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