NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Google (GOOG) announced last week it was working on a smart contact lens, trying to help people with diabetes by measuring glucose levels in tears using a wireless chip. Sounds pretty futuristic, huh? Not at all, if you know anything about physics.
Google has been pretty busy lately, with its own projects and acquiring those of others. The company is working on driverless cars and Google Glass, and recently announced it was buying Nest, the smart smoke alarm and thermostat company, for $3.2 billion in cash.
In Physics of the Future, author Michio Kaku maps out some of the these things. To give away the book would do it a disservice, but I can tell you that Kaku predicted that glasses and contact lenses would be connected to the Internet. He also predicted cars would become driverless, all projects Google already is working on. (Disclosure: I've read Physics of the Future for my own knowledge, but haven't reviewed it).
Google is working on these plans via Google X, the company's secret facility led by Google's co-founder Sergey Brin that works on top-secret projects. Google noted that it's in talks with the Food and Drug Administration on the contact lens project and there's plenty of more work to do, both from Google and others.
"We're not going to do this alone: We plan to look for partners who are experts in bringing products like this to market," the company said in a blog post. The company also said Google X seeks "... out projects that seem a bit speculative or strange, and at a time when the International Diabetes Federation (PDF) is declaring that the world is 'losing the battle' against diabetes, we thought this project was worth a shot."
Though Google is garnering lots of publicity surrounding the smart contact lens, it's not the only company to have worked on one. Microsoft (MSFT) worked on a functional contact lens a couple of years ago. Babak Parviz, the co-founder of Google's smart contact lens initiative, worked on the same project for Microsoft.
There are other companies that have tried to approach the non-invasive glucose monitoring market, to no avail. Fovioptics, worked on something similar, developing
a non-invasive glucose monitor that read blood glucose level by shining a light into a patient's eye. Ultimately, the company decided there was no market for this, shut down, and returned money to investors.
Even if Google is successful, it's going to be expensive, notes David Kliff, publisher of the Diabetic Investor newsletter. "I can't imagine the regulatory mess from this," Kliff said in a phone interview. "Even if you can get it to work, which by no means is a certainty, the regulatory path is at least two years, maybe longer."
With the advent of the microchip, technology has become faster, more powerful and cheaper, due primarily to Moore's Law. Moore's Law, which comes from Intel's (INTC) co-founder Gordon Moore, states that the the number of transistors on circuits will double approximately every two years, making technology more powerful than it was just a few short years ago.
Interestingly enough, Kaku noted that eventually chips will cease to continue doubling in power, due to the nature of Moore's Law. But that's still years away.
Google X, much to no one's surprise, could not be reached for this story.
It's clear that Mountain View, Calif.-based Google is thinking about the future and how humans interact with technology in some pretty grand plans. On Google's third-quarter earnings call, CEO Larry Page discussed self-driving cars, but the comments could be applied to any of Google's big projects coming from Google X.
"I think for any big innovation, I think you overestimate short-term and underestimate long-term, that's probably good summary for self-driving cars," Page said on the call.
Aside from the aforementioned projects such as Glass, driverless cars and contact lenses, Google is working on launching its own broadband service, Google Fiber, "a connection that is 100 times faster than today's average broadband speeds," according to the project's Web site.
It's also working on getting Internet connectivity to the undeveloped world, with something known as Project Loon. "Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters," according to Loon's Web site.
Other projects Kaku mentioned in his book are robotic body parts, surrogates and avatars (yes, like the movie, Avatar), and genome sequencing, to name a few. I would not be surprised to see in a couple of years Google work with a robotics company, be it iRobot (IRBT), Intuitive Surgical (ISRG) (which makes the da Vinci robot system), or a health care company, such as Stryker (SYK) (which makes hip and knee replacements), and really get these initiatives from paper to production.
As artificial intelligence (AI) increasingly plays a role in our lives, be it with Amazon's (AMZN) drones, or iRobot's military robots, Google is entering this foray with abandon. Google recently bought Boston Dynamics for an undisclosed sum, as the company continues to beef up its robotics intelligence. This part of the business is being led by Andy Rubin, who brought Android, Google's mobile operating system, to the forefront of consumer culture and helped make it the leading mobile operating system in the world.
Google is serious about robotics as part of its future, having acquired eight robotics companies in 2013, including Boston Dynamics, and has even brought AI expert Ray Kurzweil into the fray.
As technology plays a bigger role in our lives, it will not be just about the latest iPhone or consumer-facing product; it will increasingly be about health care and fitness, as the future of medicine becomes defined.
Reprogramming one's genes to potentially slow the aging process, and helping better understand our genes, is key to the survival of the human race. This is why 23andMe, a company that provides rapid genetic testing, and was co-founded by a Google co-founder's ex-wife, Anne Wojicki, caused such a stir in 2013. Google initially invested $3.9 million in the company, with the company ultimately raising upward of $50 million in venture capital.
Ultimately, 23andMe failed in its motion to get approval from the FDA to start marketing its Saliva Collection Kit and Personal Genome Service service to customers. (23andMe now only provides customers access to their ancestry and trait-related results, i.e. hair and eye color).
The future of personalized health care, which 23andMe was working on, is perhaps the biggest treasure trove of data of them all. This all lies squarely within Google's sights. Google makes the far majority of its revenue from paid search and advertising, allowing the company to better mine data about users (search preferences, shopping habits, browsing history), to better show you advertisements.
In the third quarter of 2013, Google generated $9.39 billion in revenue from Google sites, up 22% year over year, as more people continued to use Google products (mobile and desktop search, Android, Chrome) to look for results on the Internet. Personalized health care is the next forefront of data, and anything Google can do to increase its arm (be it robotic or otherwise) into this arena, the higher revenue goes.
Outside of personalized health care, robots and driverless cars, quantum computers are likely something Google has deep inside the labs of Google X.
Google also has been working on its energy investments, making an investment in November 2013 with KKR (KKR) in six solar plants, and recently buying another wind farm in Texas for $75 million. Google has a dedicated site toward its green initiatives, Google Green, as the world's energy use grows larger by the day. "To date, Google has committed over $1 billion to wind and solar projects that build a better future while also generating attractive financial returns," the company said on the site.
It's clear from Google X's self-proclaimed "speculative and strange" initiatives, that Google is clearly thinking big, and working on initiatives to help further mankind's run as the dominant species on this planet and perhaps others in the not-too-distant future. And all you have to do to speculate on what the Internet search giant is working on next is "Google it."
--Written by Chris Ciaccia in New York.
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