Astro Teller, leader of Alphabet’s (GOOGL) secretive moonshot factory, X, focuses on solving the planet’s biggest problems. And there’s a big one that every 21st-century business grapples with every day: hackers who relentlessly try to infiltrate computer networks and steal sensitive information.
In an effort to help corporations gain the upper hand, Teller’s skunkworks has created a tool intended to solve a common complaint in IT departments—an overwhelming number of cybersecurity alerts. The software, part of a project dubbed Chronicle, uses machine learning to filter out false alarms so that technicians can concentrate on only the most important warnings.
If that sounds pedestrian compared with X’s other moonshots, you wouldn’t be wrong. Since its founding eight years ago, X has incubated some far-out ideas: self-driving cars, contact lenses that measure blood sugar, and giant balloons that beam Internet connections to everyone below.
But faster and more accurate automated alert filtering is a small step toward tackling a far larger challenge—to develop what Teller describes as an “immune system” that could help organizations predict and defend against cyberattacks before they infiltrate a network. Chronicle’s algorithms sift through massive volumes of corporate data along with information generated by the customer’s existing security tools. Over time, the system learns what to flag and what to ignore.
“It’s like automating Sherlock Holmes,” Teller says. “We’re going to get a teenage Sherlock Holmes at some point, and then he’ll get more sophisticated over time.”
When X projects show enough commercial promise, they “graduate” from being mere experiments into independent companies. Chronicle, announced in January, is the third to graduate and remain within Alphabet, although its software remains under wraps for companies not involved in tests of the service.
Ruth Porat, Alphabet’s chief financial officer, has made no secret of the fact that she wants X to tackle projects that have a better chance of turning a profit and don’t just grab headlines. Software for what Gartner estimates is a $93 billion global information security market certainly fits the bill, aligning with a broader Alphabet strategy to diversify its revenue and become a stronger business technology rival to Microsoft (MSFT) and Amazon (AMZN).
Bill Coughran, a partner at Sequoia Capital and a former Google engineering executive, says the sheer number of security startups makes it challenging for any one company to stand out. A company’s success in selling computer security depends on its software handling many tasks well, he argues. One way for Chronicle to get a leg up in the market would be to use Alphabet’s deep pockets to undercut the competition on price. “There are a number of security products that are too expensive,” Coughran says. Customers are always on the hunt for cheaper options.
Teller believes Chronicle can thrive in a crowded field. In the end, cybersecurity remains a cat-and-mouse game, he says. Those that make real progress will “get computers a lot more involved in doing the cat part.” After all, who wants to be a mouse?
A version of this article appears in the March 2018 issue of Fortune with the headline “A Moonshot for Modest Times.”