Alphabet is spending billions of dollars to find and develop the next big thing. After all, Google’s advertising business brought in $136 billion in revenue in 2018, giving it the cushion to lose $3.4 billion on its far-out projects last year.
Alphabet’s 14 companies work on everything from life extension and airborne wind energy to smart cities and cybersecurity. For investors looking to cash in on long-term technologies, Alphabet offers a wide-ranging window into what the future may look like.
“I understand why when people look at this from the outside they say it’s a little random. The bets seem disconnected and somewhat disjointed,” said Pascal Finette, chair of entrepreneurship and open innovation at Singularity University, which focuses on the future. “But if you peel back the layers, I think you can see how a lot of the pieces actually fit nicely together.”
But Alphabet isn’t the only company addressing these topics. It has a long list of competitors with similar aspirations who might cash in on the success of the technologies before Alphabet does.
One of Alphabet’s biggest bets is rebuilding and modernizing cities, but it’s been trailing competitors that have already launched projects. Alphabet’s urban innovation company, Sidewalk Labs, has faced opposition as it plans to develop part of Toronto’s waterfront. Critics say Sidewalk Labs’ vision of a smart city — full of cameras, sensors and self-driving cars — raises alarming privacy concerns. Alphabet is now tackling complex social challenges like privacy rights in public spaces that weren’t barriers when it rolled out its search engine years ago.
Its biggest competitors in this space include telecom giants Verizon and AT&T, CNN’s parent company. Both have mounted cameras high above streets in Atlanta, Portland, San Diego and Washington DC to collect data and empower cities to make better decisions. In Washington DC earlier this year, drivers using Verizon-owned Mapquest were told if parking spots were open on several blocks near the White House.
Alphabet has competition from academic institutions and cities themselves, too. In Seattle, the University of Washington Freight Lab is working with the city to put sensors in loading zones, to detect when a truck is present. The hope is to alert drivers where open loading zones are, so they won’t have to double park and block traffic.
In Los Angeles, the government has launched an ambitious plan to track vehicle movements throughout the city. The program would help the city understand and manage congestion and safety issues.
To find the next big thing, Alphabet will need to make up a lot of ground.
“There aren’t many businesses that deliver returns like Google’s core business, so it drives them to embark on these pretty outlandish looking missions,” Finette said. “They’re pushing the envelope for what is the next big company in the next 5, 10, 20 years.”
Artificial intelligence in healthcare
Alphabet’s companies all have one thing in common: artificial intelligence. But its interest in the technology spans many industries, from its self-driving car unit Waymo to DeepMind, which uses AI for health care, to make data centers more efficient and to calculate the best moves in games such as Go and Starcraft.
One of the biggest new areas of focus for Alphabet is in the health care space, which accounts for a sixth of the dollars spent in the US economy. Alphabet-owned Calico, which launched in 2013 in San Francisco, is developing drugs with the help of AI to fight aging and age-related diseases, combines biology and medical experts with leaders in artificial intelligence.
Alphabet also has used AI to detect diseases by allowing the technology to recognize patterns, such as whether a clump of cells are cancerous. DeepMind has a partnership with the Cancer Research UK Imperial Centre and the Jikei University Hospital to analyze mammograms from 30,000 women and see if the technology can spot cancer better than current screening techniques.
But it’s not alone in rethinking health care. Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan announced in 2018 that they are working together on a project to lower health care costs and improve the quality of US health care. The effort, called Haven, aims to change policies, contracts, technologies and systems, with the help of data and AI to ultimately improve care. Financial terms have not been disclosed, and Haven hasn’t said when it will launch.
Alphabet believes its self-driving cars could indirectly impact the health care industry, too. Each year 1.25 million people die in traffic crashes worldwide. If autonomous vehicles are significantly safer than humans, many lives could be saved.
Google realized this possibility in 2009 and was first in the tech industry to work on self-driving cars for consumers. It has since spun off its self-driving project as Waymo, which operates a limited ride-hailing service in a Phoenix suburb. It has 600 vehicles in its fleet, most in the Phoenix area, and it’s also testing in the Bay Area, Washington State and Detroit.
But many competitors have surfaced since Waymo separated from Google in 2016. Car and tech companies such as Tesla, Ford and General Motors are now investing billions of dollars to compete with Waymo.
Some former Waymo employees have left to form their own autonomous vehicle startups, too. Chris Urmson, who previously led the Google self-driving car project, launched Aurora in 2017 to deliver self-driving technology quickly, broadly and safely. Aurora develops the computer system that functions as the car’s driver, safely navigating roads.
The company has raised over $530 million from investors, including Amazon. It is testing cars on the road today, and works with large automakers such as VW and Hyundai.
Bryan Salesky, who previously directed hardware development at the Google self-driving car project, created Argo AI, which is developing self-driving cars for Ford. Meanwhile, former Google engineers Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu launched Nuro, which has delivered groceries in autonomous vehicles for the Kroger grocery chain. Nuro is focused on delivering goods in local communities.
The technology is still a long ways from becoming mainstream and a part of our daily lives. While Google was early, it may not be the company that makes the most money from autonomous vehicles.
Drones and satellites
When Amazon kicked off the drone delivery space in 2013 by revealing a project to drop packages in customers’ yards, experts said the concept could revolutionize how things are brought to us.
The industry has been somewhat slow to get drone deliveries off the ground due to technology and regulatory challenges, but general interest is growing.
Alphabet-owned Wing is now delivering food to 100 households in an Australian suburb during daytime hours as a part of a pilot program. Wing’s drones hover over the delivery site and lower the package on a rope.
Amazon is still testing delivery drones of its own. To date, it has only launched a small trial in England with package deliveries to two customers in 2016.
Competition is happening outside of the big tech companies, as well. Zipline, a Silicon Valley startup, started delivering medical supplies in Rwanda in 2016 and expanded to Ghana this spring. Zipline says it is valued at $1.2 billion.
The industry is still in its early days, and it’s unclear who the biggest winners will be or if any take off at all.
Alphabet is looking toward the sky for other innovations, too: Its subsidiary Loon provides internet access via balloons to remote areas, and it’s helping a partner operate satellites, another increasingly hot area of investment. In addition, SpaceX launched 60 small satellites into space earlier this month to provide internet access to the public, and OneWeb, which recently raised $1.25 billion in new capital, plans to use satellites to give rural schools online access in the coming years.