Google, Facebook and Amazon Dream Big and Bold

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By Nelson Wang

Outlandish initiatives have started to become commonplace in Silicon Valley.

Google (GOOGL), in particular, is pursuing a strategy of investing in projects with vast transformative potential. The search giant has its own lab for these skunkworks-type projects, Google X, led by Astro Teller, whose title is captain of moonshots. Among the projects Google X has abandoned over the years are a hoverboard, a jetpack and ia space elevator.

While Wall Street analysts often question the wisdom of investing large amounts of money in pie-in-the-sky projects like this, their skepticism certainly hasn't other tech giants from pursuing them. Here are some of the most audacious moonshot projects out there.

1. Google's Self-Driving Car

Work on Google's autonomous car began in 2010 and was Google X's first project. The technology is now being tested via simulators logging millions of miles a day, as well as in real-world driving experiments, according to ReCode, and the project's head predicts it could be available to the public within five years. Uber, in which Google has invested, recently announced it, too, was working on driverless car technology.

2. Google's Internet Access From Balloons

The tech giant's Project Loon seeks to provide Internet access to rural and remote areas via a network of high-altitude balloons positioned throughout the stratosphere, above the weather and planes. Reaching the two-thirds of the world's population that doesn't currently have internet access holds obvious benefit for Google. In its latest tests, Loon has dramatically increased access speeds and coverage areas, and Google is now working toward commercializing the technology in deals with network operators, according to The Verge.

3. Facebook's Internet Delivery Via Drones

Facebook's (FB) answer to Google's Project Loon is a similarly strange-sounding project to deliver Internet access to remote regions via solar-powered drones cruising at 60,000 to 90,000 feet above the Earth. The project, code-named Aquila, is part of Facebook's Connectivity Lab, which was launched last year to bring Internet access to the rest of the world's population via everything from drones to satellites and lasers. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this month that the social network had successfully conducted its first test flight of a drone prototype in the U.K.

4. Google's Smart Contact Lens

Google's foray into futuristic health care is a partnership with Novartis to make a contact lens with a chip and sensor so that diabetics can measure their blood sugar levels constantly and non-intrusively. The lens contains a low-power microchip and an extremely thin electronic circuit that sends data to a mobile device. Google recently received a patent for a contact lens with an embedded chip, although Google would not say whether it was for the previously discussed product for diabetics.

5. Google's Project to "Cure Death"

Google announced its radical life extension project named Calico (for California Life Co.) in September 2013 in a splashy Time cover story. Calico's goal is nothing less than to reverse the effects of aging and in effect, cure death. In September 2014, Calico announced it was partnering with AbbVie to develop drugs targeting diseases associated with old age; the two firms each committed $250 million to fund a research center in San Francisco.

6. Amazon's Drone Package Delivery

In December 2013, Amazon (AMZN) posted a provocative video on YouTube of an Amazon Prime-branded drone delivering a small package to a customer. It was his dream, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said at the time, to deliver goods to customers in as little as 30 minutes using unmanned drones by 2015. Temporary Federal Aviation Administration guidelines out this month give companies that have acquired the proper permits permission to operate drones under 200 feet for commercial purposes, as long as there is one human operator per drone and the drone is kept in sight at all times. So far, about 50 companies have this permission. Unfortunately for Amazon, this stopgap measure and other proposed rules don't allow it to do what it wants: Use sophisticated computers to safely deliver packages a distance of 10 miles or more.

7. Google Glass

First announced in April 2012, Google Glass is the ambitious attempt by Google to turn us all into cyborgs. The company's stated mission was to free people from always looking down at their smartphones, but it hasn't resonated. Yet, slow sales, a skeptical public, and even the emergence of a catchy way to make fun of users of the product (they're often referred to as "glassholes") hasn't completely deterred Google. This January, Google announced that it would stop producing the product as it is today, but hasn't given up on the idea altogether.
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