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Google launches Calico to take on illness and aging

Larry Page recruits Art Levinson, chairman at both Genentech and Apple, to run the new health-focused company.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Contributing editor Eric Mack covers space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Eric Mack
4 min read
Page: Pointing the way to healthier lives? James Martin/CNET

After a few years of paring back its disparate projects under CEO Larry Page, Google is opening a whole new front in its ongoing war on the world's myriad problems by announcing Calico (short for California Life Company), a new company that will "focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases," as Page put it on Google+.

Art Levinson, chairman of Apple and former CEO of Genentech -- where he is also currently chairman -- will act as Calico's CEO.

"Art and I are excited about tackling aging and illness," Page said. "These issues affect us all -- from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families."

Apple CEO Tim Cook added his endorsement to the effort and its leader in Google's statement: "For too many of our friends and family, life has been cut short or the quality of their life is too often lacking. Art is one of the crazy ones who thinks it doesn't have to be this way."

Tapping Levinson certainly comes with the power to build bridges between tech titans, but I wonder where Google's own in-house anti-aging crusader, Ray Kurzweil, is in all of this?

Kurzweil has been working for Google as a director of engineering since earlier this year. One of the leading evangelists for the notion of a coming technological singularity, Kurzweil believes technology will enable serious life extension or even immortality in the coming decades. The sixtysomething futurist has undertaken a health regime that includes literally hundreds of vitamins to try to ensure his own analog body lasts long enough to see that potential moment -- he's even put his name on a line of health products.

But Kurzweil is working on artificial intelligence and natural-language understanding at Google, so I'll grant that it probably makes more sense to have a veteran of the biotech world in charge of Calico. But the dichotomy between these two sides of Google's efforts to fix the world, or at least make it easier to contend with, begs a pretty big and obvious question -- what's all this about then?

In an interview with Time, Page explains that "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 ares... Maybe we should shoot for the things that are really, really important so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done."

Page has revealed few details about Calico so far, calling it a "longer-term bet," but Time's sources said the project will start with a small team researching possible new technology. It would also make sense to see Google flex its data-processing muscles to try and crack the codes behind disease and aging.

Page made it clear that Calico is about looking at some of our biggest health concerns.

"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."

Something else notable about Calico is that it appears to be a for-profit venture, unlike some of Google's other do-gooder efforts that have been launched under its non-profit Google.org arm. Could Google be banking that greater longevity will be good for the company bottom line since we'll all be around longer to click on Google's ads? Or maybe the company thinks it has the algorithms to discover (and market) more effective drugs for what ails us?

I'm reminded of a talk I attended at South By Southwest in March by Astro Teller, one of the moon-shotters behind Google X. When asked for an example of a problem where moonshot thinking failed after a concerted effort, he cited Google Health, the company's effort to dissect the data of the health care industry. The problem was ultimately a political one, he said.

Perhaps Google will be able to solve death before it solves politics.

What do you think? Can Google create an algorithm to defeat death? Let us know in the comments.