“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.