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Alphabet’s Future Investments: 3-D Printed Houses, Beaming Internet, and Stem Cell Meat

Getty Images
Getty Images

From the company that brought you solar-powered drones, driverless cars, and an honest-to-god Star Trek communicator comes … 3-D printed houses?

That may be the next great frontier for Google’s parent company, Alphabet. At the tech giant’s annual shareholders meeting Wednesday, chairman Eric Schmidt outlined several emerging technologies he believes hold significant promise (this happened just before an investor called chief financial officer Ruth Porat “the Lady CFO” and senior vice president David Drummond scrambled to scrounge up some free swag for a petulant shareholder).

Some of the sectors Schmidt mentioned are areas the company has already heavily invested in: driverless cars, education tech, and virtual reality. Others inspire the same kind of polite bafflement you may have experienced when you heard Google was going to spread internet connectivity via balloons or build a flying car.

But there were three subjects in particular that are going to be a thing — or rather, things. Schmidt believes they will all be significant in the next five to 10 years, with or without Alphabet’s involvement. Google doesn’t have a perfect prediction record, but the amount of research and industry attention already starting to accumulate around these ideas certainly means something.

3-D Printed Houses

MakerBot’s dream of a 3-D printer in every home seems to be dead, but industrial 3-D printing will live on, even if the so-called “maker movement” remains a hobbyist niche. 3-D printers are already being used to build jet engine parts and hearing aids. Schmidt thinks the technology will eventually be used to construct entire buildings. “Imagine if we can get the cost of those buildings down by a factor of three or four or five using new materials and allow you to remodel them very quickly and things like that,” he said.

In fact, 3-D printed buildings may already be here. Dubai claims to have opened the first 3-D printed office building in the world earlier this year. In the future, 3-D printed buildings could be constructed in a matter of hours to serve as emergency shelters in disaster situations. Just what do the massive printers that could handle such projects look like? Check out the dramatic trailer for this monstrous 40-foot-by-20-foot printer, complete with the now-iconic BRRRRRRRAAAAARAM from Inception.

Truly Wireless Internet

Waiting around for the cable guy may be a thing of the past if Google figures out how to beam wireless internet directly into our homes. The company has plans to test this in Kansas City by rigging antennas that operate on a special radio spectrum to light poles around the city. Devices that are within range of the antennas and can communicate on the same spectrum will then be able to receive internet. That might mean a special antenna dongle for your phone or laptop, or a router-like device that sits in your living room to pick up a wireless signal.

Schmidt believes Google will eventually be able to offer 1-gigabit-per-second wireless speeds, the same speed currently advertised by Google Fiber. The company wants to have the Kansas City network operational by next year. If it’s successful, other internet service providers would likely follow suit.

Stem Cell Meat

We’ve known Google was interested in synthetic meat since cofounder Sergey Brin invested more than $300,000 in a research project to grow an edible hamburger from stem cells. Brin took an interest due to animal welfare concerns, but his company could have financial incentives to invest in lab meat in the future. The researcher who led Brin’s synthetic-meat project said the price of that very pricey burger dropped by 80 percent in two years, bringing us tantalizingly close to Shake Shack–level prices. Man-made meat could drastically reduce energy consumption, improve animal treatment, and help feed the fast-growing global population. Though Alphabet isn’t currently investing in the sector, the company reportedly made a bid last year for Impossible Foods, a startup developing a plant-based burger that it said tastes just as good as the bloody variety. Next step: come up with a more appetizing name than “lab meat.”