THE BLOG

Google vs. Death? Really?

10/03/2013 11:36 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Has Google gone right off the deep end? It's common for techies to be infatuated with transhumanism and other far-out ideas, but "solving death" seems like a real stretch. And yet that's what the megacompany's latest initiative is apparently meant to do.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. The company did help start 23andMe, the direct-to-consumer genetic testing company run by co-founder Sergei Brin's (now estranged) wife. It also made a failed attempt to launch Google Health, a different data-storing effort. Even more significantly, it contributed to Singularity University, which isn't a university and doesn't have much to do with singularity but gets its name from the idea that "humans and machines will at some point merge, making old age and death meaningless." That's the kind of thinking that passes for radical in Silicon Valley.

Time magazine just published a cover story (mostly behind a pay wall) that is essentially a puff piece about Google. Most of the article focuses on Larry Page's tenure as CEO and the Google X division run by Brin. But the cover reads "Can Google Solve Death?" and the headline is "Google vs. Death." It is hooked to the announcement of a company called Calico, which is so new that it doesn't even have a website. (Calico.org is the Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium; Calico.com is owned by Oracle, Calico.net by domaingrabber.com, calico.biz by an Indian outfit.) But it does have a CEO, and a mission, according to Page:

I'm excited to announce Calico, a new company that will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases. Art Levinson, Chairman and former CEO of Genentech and Chairman of Apple, will be Chief Executive Officer.

Strangely, Levinson "was not immediately available for comment" to Time, but Page gave a strong clue about his own thinking in part of his interview that is available online:

"Are people really focused on the right things? One of the things I thought was amazing is that if you solve cancer, you'd add about three years to people's average life expectancy," Page said. "We think of solving cancer as this huge thing that'll totally change the world. But when you really take a step back and look at it, yeah, there are many, many tragic cases of cancer, and it's very, very sad, but in the aggregate, it's not as big an advance as you might think."

The war on cancer, which is decades old, does seem to be bogged down in a stalemate. Indeed, Page may even be correct -- on average. But no one is average. Most cancer patients would happily take three more years; and if there were a real cure, some of them might get ten or twenty. But Page is apparently thinking of much more than that.
The New York Times did manage to get hold of Levinson, who is investing in Calico as well as running it. He's the only employee so far, and sees it as "more of an institute certainly than a pharmaceutical company." He's also "exploring a partnership with Roche" which might not be too difficult: he's been on Roche's board since they bought Genentech. He helpfully explained on his Google+ page:

Calico is an abbreviation for the "California Life Company," but if you're thinking about cats, we like the old saying that they have nine lives...

Immortality and transhumanist ideas generally have long been a source of fascination in Silicon Valley. Indeed, it's not unusual for billionaires to get interested in life extension. John Sperling did (and generated the pet-cloning business on the side). Larry Ellison did, and his Foundation continues to fund close to $50 million of research a year. And Google's commitment to what they see as the very long term -- "ten or 20 years" -- is certainly admirable, though the timescale seems a tad optimistic.

It's really not obvious, however, just what Calico will be doing. There are vague speculations about computational power, and of course Google has genetic testing connections, but 23andMe doesn't seem to be involved. Nor it is clear how much of Google's $54 billion stash of cash the new company will use. Of course, if you have that much in your piggy bank, you can affect the course of research rather drastically. But Page is clear that Calico is not a core mission of Google, and strongly implies that its investment will be quite limited. On the other hand, Astro Teller (né Eric, and the grandson of Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb), who runs Google X with Brin, told Time:

"If you make something a little bit better, people might pay you for it; they may not. But if you make the world a radically better place, the money is going to come find you, in a fair and elegant way."

Setting aside those pesky sociopolitical questions about how much assemblyline workers make and just how fair and elegant is the way that $20-billion-plus has moseyed on over to each of Google's co-founders, what's most aggravating is the hubris involved. Sure, Page and Brin and their cohort are very smart, in their field, but a lot of people are very smart, and some of them know much more about, for instance, biology.

It sometimes seems that we are further away from understanding the mysteries of life than we were back in the 1990s, when the hope was that decoding the genome would give us the key to cures. That may yet happen; but scientists are more than a decade into work on gene therapy, for instance, and thus far there are only a couple of limited clinical trials, following on earlier errors. That's not a criticism; it's the way science works in the real world.

Sure, tech wizards think they can do anything, or that's how it often seems. But they are not alone in that delusion. We've seen what the "smartest guys in the room" can do to mess up energy distribution, and banking, and the housing market, and whole countries in the Middle East. Maybe the Google guys are about to join that set of failed elites. Could it be that we are beginning to see peak Google? Could it be downhill from here?

Maybe this is not that important of a deal, to Google, just a long-shot bet that could come off. Perhaps that's why they didn't even bother setting up Calico properly before announcing it. Perhaps it's even a hedge against the possibility of the Singularity not occurring. But Levinson is a big-time player in biotech ... so Calico certainly could be worth watching.

Meanwhile, if Vegas is making book on this fight, the smart bet might be on Death.