Google vs Death? Really?

Posted by Pete Shanks September 20, 2013
Biopolitical Times

Time magazine just published a cover story (mostly behind 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 cofounder Sergei Brin. But it is hooked to the announcement of a company called Calico, which is so new that it doesn't even have a website. ( is the Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium; is owned by Oracle, by, 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 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 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."

Maybe this is not that important of a deal, to Google, just a long-shot bet that could come off. Perhaps it's even a hedge against the possibility of the Singularity not occurring. (That's the belief, with which Google has been connected, that "humans and machines will at some point merge, making old age and death meaningless.") But Levinson is a big-time player … so Calico certainly could be worth watching.

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

Previously on Biopolitical Times: