Larry Page provides new insight into Alphabet's health ambitions

Key Points
  • Larry Page highlights an initiative in health that uses machine learning.
  • Its investments in machine learning are already yielding "significant dividends," he says.
  • Page refers to Calico, its mysterious anti-aging effort, as a "research and development company," which suggests it is focused on basic science.
Larry Page
Getty Images

With its so-called "other bets," Google parent company Alphabet is tackling everything from self-driving cars to the future of urban living, but its most important focus is health. Its life-sciences arm Verily, anti-aging initiative Calico, urban planning group Sidewalk, and investment arms GV and CapitalG are all aggressively hiring health professionals.

In a letter to shareholders before earnings on Thursday, Alphabet Google cofounder Larry Page put these initiatives in the spotlight.

Page intentionally keeps his language vague, but eagle-eyed readers might spot some clues in his word choices, as well as the initiatives that he chooses to highlight other others.

Page describes Calico, the most mysterious of Google's other bets, as a "research and development company," rather than a pharmaceutical or biotech company.

Alphabet reasonably valued relative to growth: Pro

All that's known about Calico is that a team of former Genentech executives are recruiting scientists in an effort to better understand aging -- and how to combat it. By describing it in that manner, Page is signaling that Calico is still early-stage, and a ways off from bringing a product to the market. More likely, it is focusing on basic science research rather than clinical applications.

When it comes to its other health efforts, Page indicated that Alphabet's focus is in bringing artificial intelligence and machine learning to the sector. Venture deals at the intersection of health and AI are booming, according to the research firm CB Insights, particularly when it comes to algorithms that can spot hard-to-detect tumors and other health issues in a scan.

Inside Google itself, the DeepMind and Google Brain teams are building algorithms to sort through piles of medical images, which can theoretically be used alongside a trained human expert. These applications are all still early, but Page hints that he sees a major potential market. "We were early in machine learning and are already seeing significant dividends coming out," he writes.

Verily, the life sciences unit, is working on a several projects that involve bringing AI to health. But Page chose to flag one, which he describes as "running for quite a while," known as Debug.

That project aims to leverage AI to curb the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses. More specifically, it uses bolster ongoing efforts to sterilize mosquito populations by helping scientists distinguish between male and female mosquitos through tech that picks up on characteristics that are almost impossible to detect with the naked eye.

Alphabet's earnings are expected after the bell on Thursday.

Watch: Buy or sell Alphabet?

Buy or sell Alphabet?