Yesterday, Google CEO Larry Page announced what is perhaps his company’s most audacious project: a life science startup called Calico that will pursue solutions for aging and its associated diseases. As Time Magazine put it, Calico hopes to cure death. In many ways, this new venture seemed to come out of left field. But Page actually has a long history with the search for immortality.
Page has long been a fan of Ray Kurzweil, the legendary inventor and author who popularized the concept of the Singularity, a theoretical tipping point where technology becomes so advanced it begins to radically alter the fabric of our existence. In the documentary Transcendent Man, Kurzweil openly talks about his ambition to achieve eternal life, even speculating that it might be possible to bring his dead father back from the grave in the process.
In 2008 Google became one of the corporate backers of the Singularity University, of which Kurzweil is a co-founder. According to a report in the New York Times, Page and Google provided more than $250,000 in donations to help found the university and several of Google’s early employees have personally donated $100,000 or more. In December of last year, Google hired Kurzweil.
Larry Page is planning for the SingularityThe topic of defeating death has become central to the discourse around the Singularity. Last year’s Singularity Summit featured speakers like Laura Deming, who told a rapt crowd that, "There is one fact that never fails to infuriate me. Every day 150,000 die of a disease that we ignore." Deming, a scientific prodigy who at just 18 years old has dedicated her life to ending aging, went on to say that "if we succeed, we will have turned the most awful paradigm that we know on its head. The inevitability of death."
There is another, more practical reason why Google is increasingly interested in life sciences. The study of life science is increasingly about genetics, and genetics is becoming a question of computing power and machine learning. While the amount of venture capital funding flowing into the life sciences has dropped precipitously since 2008, Google Ventures has been one of the few Silicon Valley investors expanding its stake in this area.
"Digital insights are becoming increasingly important in the life sciences, because genetics is a data-driven practice, giving us a real place to add value," says Dr. Krishna Yeshwant, a general partner with Google Ventures. "There is a lot of opportunity because a lot of the traditional players have been scared off and there is less money available even for the top-tier companies that are great bets."
"I'm interested in ideas that sound a little bit crazy"
In his post announcing Calico, Page specifically thanked Bill Maris, the managing partner at Google Ventures, saying he helped bring the project to life and get Art Levinson involved. Levinson is the former CEO and current chairman of Genentech, and another one of the corporate founders behind the Singularity University. As Maris told the Wall Street Journal last year, "I'm interested in the ideas that sound a little crazy, such as radical life extension, curing cancer, being able to create a simulation of the human brain and map every neuron."
Yesterday’s announcement about the launch of Calico was met with surprise and excitement. But as Google pushes further in the direction of radical life extension, it will likely incite a heated debate. Skeptics point out that without aging humanity may face a crisis of overpopulation, or at least an enormous imbalance between productive members of the workforce and older citizens eager for retirement. Anti-aging work also highlights the question of how best to dedicate resources to the acute illnesses that can take young lives, or the universal problem of aging.
"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 in his interview with Time. "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."