This past Friday, Google unveiled the latest in a line of ambitious and somewhat confounding health programs. After building a glucose-measuring contact lens and a mysterious skunkworks program to cure death, the company will employ a team of as many as 100 doctors and scientists in a project called Google Baseline, a quest to fully understand the healthy human body. It's got everything you would want from a big Google project: it's big, brash, a little scary, and completely oblivious to how anyone might take it the wrong way. Already, writers have described Baseline as Google's quest to build a perfect human, implying ethical concerns before the process has even begun.
"We just don't know enough until we start looking in detail."
But if the project plays into Google's familiar dystopian vibe, the science is much less far-fetched than it sounds. The United Kingdom's Biobank is already undertaking a similar project, looking for medical readings from healthy subjects across the country. Most biomarker research is still focused on finding early warning signs of a disease — a classic example would be a protein that tips off doctors to a disease before symptoms manifest — but researchers are increasingly interested in projects like Baseline that would help to better understand the healthy body. The only problem is it's still unclear where Baseline should be looking. According to Dr. Sam Gambir, one of the doctors working on the project, Baseline will be looking for clues almost everywhere, looking for unique proteins, quirks of the genome, and scanning the body's metabolism. "We just don't know enough until we start looking in detail," Gambir says.
Baseline "could unlock lots of ideas for future projects"
But why is Google so interested in the biomarker business? Google X prides itself on making room for moonshots, but Baseline is actually more strategic than it looks. Google's announcement admits it, saying the project "could unlock lots of ideas for future projects, not just at Google but across the health and technology industries." The data itself is all under strict protection by medical ethics boards, so it won't ever show up in a Google Health-style app, but that doesn't mean Google can't benefit from the project. If Baseline turns up any new ways to measure healthiness, Google will have a head start in developing the new instruments and techniques that take advantage of that data, which could have a huge impact on Google's bottom line in the decades to come.
It's also a crucial play for Android, as health data becomes increasingly important for the smartphone business. In June, Apple announced a partnership with Epic, one of America's largest keepers of electronic medical records. The play was simple: by porting that data into the Healthkit app, Apple could give you an in-depth look at the same blood pressure and heart rate measurements your doctor sees, alongside information from personal trackers like the Fitbit. In a world where we're constantly monitoring our health data, that could be a convincing reason to buy an iPhone instead of the latest Android model.
Google has been stuck playing catch-up
Google has taken a different route and found less success. The company's first try was Google Health, designed as an all-purpose hub for medical data that would be useful to patients, doctors, and medical-app developers alike. That meant more than just pulling medical data from hospitals: Google Health wanted to change how doctors stored that data, how it was collected, and how hospitals accessed it. If Health had taken off, it would have allowed for a deeper and more versatile data stream than Apple's Healthkit could offer, giving Google a lasting advantage. Unfortunately for Google, it didn't work. The potential overhaul scared off much of the medical community and as a result, the service had little access to hard data and met with little support from users or developers. When Google announced it was discontinuing Health in 2011, few complained. The company announced its Healthkit competitor Google Fit at I/O this year, but without a powerful partner like Epic to feed in data, the company has been stuck playing catch-up.
Aiming big without scaring off patients and doctors
The result is a stalemate, one that could keep Google out of medical apps indefinitely. Google wants to make a big play in health care, but it's one of the most tightly regulated industries in the world, and for good reason. Health data is some of the most sensitive data there is. A person's medical records could reveal a history of drug abuse, psychiatric problems, or even a terminal illness on the horizon. A data breach could be catastrophic, making hospitals wary of schemes that would move the records to the cloud. At the same time, many worry that putting too much data in the hands of patients will lead them to self-diagnose, upsetting treatment plans and potentially posing a real threat to users' health and safety. The DNA-mapping company 23andme already lost a crucial battle with the FDA for offering medical advice without a doctor's help, and any future ventures will have to walk the same line — aiming big without scaring off patients and doctors.
Disease data is sensitive, but health data is just data
Baseline's new focus on health rather than disease could offer a way out of that bind. Disease data is sensitive but health data is just, well, data. Fitness widgets like Fitbit have already cleared the way for how we collect and display that data, but they can't tell you much about what's actually happening in your body. Still, it's easy to imagine that kind of data evolving into something more useful, including blood pressure or even blood-sugar readings. Google has already moved in this direction with Google X's first piece of medical hardware: a glucose-reading contact lens. With enough data collected outside the context of traditional medicine, Google can afford to wait for doctors come around. And if that shift happens on Google's terms, it could have profound implications for Android too.
Like most battles between iOS and Android, it's a long game. It will be years before Baseline produces any products, and it may be even longer before consumers start expecting health data on their phone. But while Baseline might seem like one of Google's techno-utopian fantasies, it's something much more strategic than that. The mysteries of the human body are going to be a major part of the tech world in the decades to come, and any company with a strong foothold will be well rewarded. If you're trying to outrun modern medicine, you need every head start you can get.
July 28th 10:38am EST: This article has been updated to include more information on Baseline's IRB protections, as well as other syntax changes.