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Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Alphabet's Interests Are a Varied, Veritable Soup

June 9, 2016
From autonomous cars and 3D printing to, uh, meatless meat, the company once just called Google still has a tremendous range of curiosity.

Alphabet Inc., the owner of Google, is using its computing prowess to branch out into a dizzying array of new areas, from medical diagnoses to “transformative” partnerships between humans and artificial intelligence, laying out its ambition at the company’s annual shareholder meeting.

Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt also disclosed that the company’s Fiber fast internet service has new wireless technology that will cut the cost of hooking up homes because it won’t have to dig up people’s gardens to lay fiber optic cables. This could make build-outs cheaper and is probably part of the reason Fiber is expanding to 22 cities across the U.S.

Schmidt’s comments on the web service, in response to a shareholder question, came at an upbeat gathering at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters that was typically sparsely attended. Sundar Pichai, the Google CEO, attended, along with Ruth Porat, who’s been chief financial officer for just more than a year. David Drummond, chief legal officer, also turned up, but no Larry Page or Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google. (Alphabet’s multiple share structure, which gives Page, Brin and Schmidt voting control, meant all shareholder proposals that management didn’t like were quickly dispensed with.)

The highlight of the meeting was Schmidt’s list of Alphabet’s top areas of interest. The company isn’t involved in all these fields, but thinks they are important, he said.

SEARCH TO SUGGEST: The most profound new technology, where Alphabet has spent most of its time, is the move from helping people search for information by asking questions to suggesting the right information for them at the right time, Schmidt said. Google has developed an artificial intelligent system it calls “The Assistant” that will make suggestions inside a new Allo messaging service and from a Home device that will talk to people in their living rooms.

Alphabet is using this technology for other products too, such as the YouTube video service, and plans to expand it, Schmidt said. For example, a scientist might be close to a discovery and the Assistant would suggest areas of focus or new avenues to research based on its analysis of data. Alphabet hopes for “a true partnership” between computers doing things they are really good at and humans doing what they’re good at, Schmidt said. “This will be transformative for our company,” he added.

NERDS OVER CATTLE: Alphabet is interested in ways to make meat from plants and other cellular organisms, sometimes known as meatless meat. The company isn’t a direct player in this new sector, but there are startups already pursuing this technology, which has promise, Schmidt said. Schmidt called it “nerds over cattle.”

3D PRINTING: Not regular 3D printing, which is so 2005. Schmidt said whole buildings may be made using 3D printing, which could mean quicker and cheaper construction while retaining dynamic designs. Such methods could reduce building costs by a factor from two to five, he said.

VIRTUAL AND AUGMENTED REALITY: Virtual reality is too expensive and Google is trying to do it cheaper so more people can use the technology. The company is developing a suite of products that could generate “a very large future revenue stream from entertainment, sports and gaming,” Schmidt said. Google’s augmented reality efforts will provide information to people in the context of their real surroundings. Glass, the failed wearable computer, was a first attempt, but there’s “much more” coming from the company here, the executive said.

MEDICINE: Schmidt spent the most time talking about Alphabet’s research and development in medicine and health care, a suggestion of its importance at the company. Mobile phones and related devices, such as wrist bands, will monitor people’s health more often, potentially saving lives. Alphabet’s Verily business is still pursuing a contact lens that measures glucose levels for diabetes sufferers, Schmidt said. He reeled off at least three other medical projects and said Alphabet’s computing, data analysis and artificial intelligence expertise may be able to improve diagnoses and the research of new treatments for cancer and other diseases.

AUTONOMOUS CARS: Schmidt said autonomous vehicle technology is ready for public roads and regulation is holding it back. The consensus inside the company is that this is years, not decades, away and it should happen quickly because it could reduce road deaths by thousands per year, Schmidt added.

EDUCATION: Several startups are using a type of AI called machine learning to help human teachers craft more individualized classes for students. Teachers remain crucial, but students could get better results with a combination of human and computer instruction, Schmidt said.

By Alistair Barr

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