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- Alphabet’s secretive X lab is working on some of the company’s most ambitious, futuristic, out-there projects.
- Some of these could one day be spun out into their own businesses.
- They include using artificial intelligence for farming, and a project focused on enhanced hearing.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
There are few parts of Alphabet more fascinating than its futuristic research lab, X. From drones to driverless cars, the top-secret, free-ranging division has birthed some of the Google parent company’s biggest “moonshot” projects.
Some of those, such as self-driving car company Waymo, have “graduated” into their own entities housed under Alphabet. Others, like energy-storage company Malta, have spun off into independent businesses outside the Google family entirely.
Some fail entirely. In February, Alphabet announced it was grounding its internet balloon business, Loon. Last year, it shuttered its energy kite company, Makani.
But the group still has bold ambitions to launch the next big Alphabet business. That could be an industrial robotics company, or the mobility project SmartyPants. It could also be a project focused on solving the climate crisis, something that has become an increasing point of focus for the lab.
We’ve rounded up some of the more promising projects happening inside X right now, based on Insider’s and other outlets’ reporting.
Got a tip on another interesting X project? You can contact this reporter securely using the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (+1-628-228-1836) or via encrypted email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Reach out using a nonwork device.
Mineral has set out to change farming using what it calls “computational agriculture.” Put more simply, it’s finding innovative ways to use technology to give farmers better insight into what’s happening in their field.
The company says that by tracking how plants are developing, growers can better predict the size and yield of the crop, which can then help them make better yield projections.
Leading the project is Elliot Grant, who was formerly CEO of HarvestMark, a platform for tracing foods to their farming source.
One of the central elements of Mineral is solar-powered electric buggies that can travel across a field and capture data on crops using cameras and other sensors. It would then combine that with satellite imagery, as well as soil and weather data, to identify patterns and give farmers a better understanding of how their crops are growing.
The team said it is currently working with breeders and growers in Argentina, Canada, the United States, and South Africa.
“Just as the microscope led to a transformation in how diseases are detected and managed, we hope that better tools will enable the agriculture industry to transform how food is grown,” project lead Elliott Grant wrote in a blog post.
Everyday Robot Project
Once upon a time, Google had a real thing for robots. So much so that in 2013 it went on a spending spree for robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics. But those dreams fell apart, and in 2017 it sold Boston Dynamics to the Japan-based tech conglomerate SoftBank.
Now, the company’s robot aspirations may be reigniting, but with a twist. In 2019, X announced the Everyday Robot Project, an initiative to build robots that can be “taught” rather than simply coded.
The project is being overseen by general manager Hans Peter Brondmo.
“It’s possible for robots to learn how to perform new tasks in the real world just through practice, rather than having engineers ‘hand code’ every new task, exception, or improvement,” Brondmo wrote in a blog post announcing the project.
The team say they are building these robots to work in “unstructured” environments. “In order for robots to be useful day to day, they need to understand and make sense of the spaces where we live and work, and adapt to them as they gain experience. This requires new forms of machine intelligence,” the team wrote on its website.
The project is testing its robots in workplace environments in Northern California, and say the initial results are “encouraging,” with the bots performing tasks such as recycling (rather slowly, the team notes).
In time, the Everyday Robotics Project could make Alphabet competitive with Amazon’s own robotics initiative.
X is actively working on several wearables projects, but sources have told Insider that one of the most promising is an augmented-reality device focused on the future of hearing.
It’s codenamed Wolverine, a reference to the mutant’s heightened senses (and one of the project lead’s favorite characters, one source said). The Wolverine team began work on the project in 2018, and sources say much work has been focused on iterating a device that would give wearers enhanced hearing abilities.
One of the initial “features” the team have been working to solve is speech segregation, letting the wearer focus on one particular speaker in a group setting with overlapping conversations.
However, like other X projects, the ultimate goal would be to build this into a business, not just one device or a single technology. Wolverine is being led by Jason Rugolo, a former ARPA-E director who joined X in 2017.
It’s still in the early stages, but sources say Wolverine has gathered momentum and brought aboard some notable names, including Simon Carlile, a former VP of Starkey Hearing Technologies, as tech lead.
Tidal is X’s ocean conservation project aimed at making fish farming more sustainable.
It’s in some ways similar to Mineral. The initiative uses cameras and “machine perception tools” to monitor and interpret fish behavior not visible to the human eye. Over time, this data can help fish farmers manage their pens more efficiently.
“We can’t protect what we don’t understand,” wrote Tidal general manager Neil Davé in a blog post last year announcing the project.
“Pollution and unsustainable fishing practices mean that there will soon be more plastic than fish in the sea, while rapid acidification is killing corals and sea creatures.”
Although the project was first publicly revealed in March 2020, the Financial Times reported that it had been already running for three years.
Unnamed industrial robotics project
Everyday isn’t the only robotics project inside X. Last December, The Information reported on the existence of an industrial robotics project that plans to automate certain types of factories.
That project is reportedly being overseen by Wendy Tan White, who joined X in 2019, according to the report. White, who is a vice president at X and a “moonshot mentor,” took over the project from Dean Banks, who left his position at X to become the CEO of Tyson Foods.
A source told The Information that the project is likely to become a standalone Alphabet subsidiary this year.
An X spokeswoman did not comment on the specifics of the project, but confirmed that there are other robotics projects outside of Everyday.
Bringing high-speed internet to the world has long been an interest for Alphabet. It has tried new forms of high-speed internet through Google Fiber and, until recently, Loon.
X’s Taara project is a way to potentially supersede Fiber altogether, transmitting large amounts of data at high speeds using light beams instead of physical wires.
“Planning and digging trenches to lay lines can be time-consuming and costly, and tough terrain can pose physical challenges that make expansion nearly impossible,” the team wrote on the project website.
The idea was actually born out of Loon, the Alphabet initiative that set out to deliver internet access to rural locations using high-altitude balloons, and which was shuttered in February. The team began working on the tech in 2017 as an offshoot of Loon, and Taara was officially announced as a standalone project in November 2020.
Mahesh Krishnaswamy, previously head of manufacturing and supply chain for Loon, is now the team lead on Taara.
With a clear line of sight, Taara’s light technology (named Free Space Optical Communication or FSOC) can wirelessly transmit data at high speeds of up to 20 Gbps, the team says.
They’re currently working on delivering those speeds over distances of 20km or more, while also making it easier for partners to deploy the units.
SmartyPants is a project that X isn’t yet ready to say too much about, but it’s dropped a few clues here and there.
So far, we know it’s literally a pair of pants that can improve mobility for people who have difficulty walking, using a combination of robotics, AI, machine learning, and fabric.
“The space of ageing in general hasn’t had enough investment,” Kathryn Zealand, project lead on SmartyPants, told Wired during a demo last year. “The demographics mean it’s going to be a big thing in the future.”
The pants “see” their surroundings using a combination of sensors and machine learning, helping the wearer to move safely.
Some job postings for the projects also reveal clues about the project.
“The team is multi-disciplinary, bringing together expertise in machine learning, biomechanics, robotics and soft goods,” notes one ad, which a spokesperson confirmed was for a job on SmartyPants.
“The project will be in a prototyping phase, rapidly iterating and implementing ideas to progressively de-risk the idea from a technical perspective.”
SmartyPants also made a cameo in an official video the company published last year that delvied into X’s prototyping lab.