“JUDGE a man by his questions, rather than his answers,” Voltaire advised. Google has become one of the most successful firms in history by heeding that advice. It evaluates the intention of web-surfers’ queries and returns relevant advertising alongside search results. But for years there has been a lingering question about Google: can it create a new, highly profitable unit to rival its search business?
Not yet. In the past five years, Alphabet, formed as a holding company for Google and other disparate projects in October 2015, has spent $46bn on research and development (see chart). Much has gone to so-called “moonshot” projects, such as self-driving cars, smart contact lenses and internet delivered via balloons. Its British artificial-intelligence unit, DeepMind, also falls into the category of other projects. Since the start of 2015, these bets have together recorded a loss of $6bn.