Time magazine's new cover story is the about the ultimate tech company cage match: GOOGLE VS. DEATH. In Silicon Valley parlance, this mortal coil is a bug, not a feature, and Time gives GOOG pretty generous odds.
It’s worth pointing out that there is no other company in Silicon Valley that could plausibly make such an announcement. Smaller outfits don’t have the money; larger ones don’t have the bones. Apple may have set the standard for surprise unveilings but, excepting a major new product every few years, these mostly qualify as short-term. Google’s modus operandi, in comparison, is gonzo airdrops into deep “Wait, really?” territory. Last week Apple announced a gold iPhone; what did you do this week, Google? Oh, we founded a company that might one day defeat death itself.
Also worth pointing out? No company can plausibly claim to defeat death. It's de facto implausible! "Might," doesn't quite cover it. Probably. "One day." Outlook hazy, but hey, it gives Time and Google an excuse to talk about "moon shots," Larry Page's pet phrase for outlandish, presumably genius ideas. Page, who helped found Singularity University, has had a life-extension fetish for a while. Last year, the company hired transhumanist cheerleader Ray Kurzweil to build "the ultimate AI."
The death-curing company Time is referring to is Calico. According to a press release put out at the same time as the article, Calico "will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases." Calico's CEO and founding investor is Arthur D. Levinson, the former CEO of Genentech, the biotech corporation. Even with this new role to alter the basic nature of human existence, Levinson "will remain Chairman of Genentech and a director of Hoffmann-La Roche, as well as Chairman of Apple."
But if you're looking for more details about Calico from Time's exuberant cover story, don't bother. All Google offers is some sleight of hand about all-knowing data, pay no attention to the billionaires behind the curtain:
Medicine is well on its way to becoming an information science: doctors and researchers are now able to harvest and mine massive quantities of data from patients. And Google is very, very good with large data sets. While the company is holding its cards about Calico close to the vest, expect it to use its core data-handling skills to shed new light on familiar age-related maladies. Sources close to the project suggest it will start small and focus entirely on researching new technologies.
When will that lead to something Google might actually sell? It’s anybody’s guess.
What’s certain is that looking at medical problems through the lens of data and statistics, rather than simply attempting to bring drugs to market, can produce startlingly counterintuitive opinions. “Are people really focused on the right things?” Page muses. “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. 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.” Page, in other words, is a man for whom solving—not curing—cancer may not be a big enough task.
Solving death over curing cancer is a pretty high class problem. But before we start working ourselves into a frenzy about who has access to Google's "solution"—decrying some dystopian double feature of Elysium and In Time, where only the poor die young—consider the hubris of Page's claims.
The fact that Time is laundering that belief (no need to mention it in the press release when a cover line does it for you) is a bubble indicator. How do you know when everyone is too intoxicated on the phantom power of pampered billionaires? When they tell you they can solve death and you believe them.
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