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Google to Try to Solve Death, LOL

A new company launched by Google will seek to extend human life spans.
September 18, 2013

A joke about Silicon Valley is that entrepreneurs always seem to focus on the problems facing people of their own age. That’s why young programmers have endless ideas for websites that will tell them what bar to hang out in. Then, in middle age and with marriage, it’s onto inventing fertility apps (see “Three Questions for Max Levchin About His New Startup”).

Eventually, as your hair goes gray, you have to fix death itself.

Today, Time magazine broke the news that Google and its CEO Larry Page are funding a company that will try to extend human lifespan and solve the diseases of aging.  The weekly’s next newsstand cover asks, in huge letters, “Can Google Solve Death?”

Pretty obviously, Google isn’t going to solve death. But what’s interesting is that Page, now 40, and Google have the hubris to think they might.

The Time article—and a Google blog post released at the same time—provided scant detail about what the new company, called Calico, will actually do. According to Time, the company, to be based somewhere in the Bay Area, will place long-term bets on unspecified technologies that could help fight the diseases of aging.

Page did tell Time he thinks biomedical researchers may have focused on the wrong problems and that health-care companies don’t think long-term enough. “In some industries it takes 10 or 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Health care is certainly one of those areas,” Page told Time. “We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done.”

The company’s initial investors are Google and Arthur Levinson, also chairman of Apple’s board and that of biotech company Genentech. Levinson, a trained biochemist, will be the CEO of Calico, which the The New York Times reported is short for California Life Company.  

In a blog post, Page also thanked Bill Maris, a partner at Google’s venture arm, Google Ventures, which invests fairly widely in different technology startups, many with only an indirect connection to the search giant’s main business.

“OK … so you’re probably thinking wow!  That’s a lot different from what Google does today.  And you’re right,” Page wrote on his blog. “But as we explained in our first letter to shareholders, there’s tremendous potential for technology more generally to improve people’s lives.  So don’t be surprised if we invest in projects that seem strange or speculative compared with our existing Internet businesses.”  

Google didn’t disclose how much money the company had raised. But if it’s primarily an investment by its venture arm, the amount is likely to be vanishingly small compared to the $31 billion spent on biomedical research each year by the National Institutes of Health, and billions upon billions more spent by drug companies.

This isn’t the first time Google has ventured from its core businesses in computing with grandiose claims that it can fix some huge social problem. The search giant previously sought to produce zero-carbon energy at massive scales, but backed away from that research after it found that inventing new energy technology wasn’t so easy (see “Google’s Search for Clean Energy”.)

Still, Page hinted that Google is apparently thinking of ways to appreciably alter the average life span. He told Time that curing cancer would not be “as big an advance as you might think” saying it would only add about three years to average life expectancy.

Life expectancy in developed countries is around 80 years already, and has been climbing. The longest any human has lived is 122 years, according to Guinness World Records.

Page joins other wealthy technologists who have signed up to fund the anti-aging quest. Billionaire Larry Ellison funds anti-aging research at a foundation he set up. And there’s been talk in Silicon Valley X Prize for how to freeze human remains so they can be revived in the future.

It’s unclear if Calico is going to be a biology company, or more of a computer science company. Certainly, Google’s way of looking at technology has promise now that medicine is becoming more data driven. For instance, as more genetic information on tumors becomes available, there’s a race on to learn whether drugs can be aimed at particular DNA signatures.

One clue to Calico’s plans is Levinson. The one-time CEO of Genentech is also chairman of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, an organization funded by Silicon Valley luminaries including Google co-founder Sergey Brin that this year gave out $33 million in purses mostly to cancer researchers (see “Yuri Milner Wants to Give Everyone Who Matters Some Money”).

Levinson’s picks for the 11 winners of those prizes suggest he’s primarily interested in cancer research, particularly the link to stem cells and genetics. That might also be the direction Calico is headed.

In the meantime, I have a suggestion for Page. If you type in “stem cell treatment” into Google’s search bar, you’ll get paid advertisements for shady clinics in Panama and China selling desperate people so-called cures for just about any devastating disease you can name. The same types of ads pop up on cancer-related searches.

It’s pure snake oil. And Google has been shamelessly collecting money on this kind of quackery (and people’s wish to cheat death) for years.

If Page is serious about medical research he should start with his own search engine. 

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