Will Google Use Health IT To Make You Immortal?

Posted on November 15, 2013 I Written By

James Ritchie is a freelance writer with a focus on health care. His experience includes eight years as a staff writer with the Cincinnati Business Courier, part of the American City Business Journals network. Twitter @HCwriterJames.

When Google Health, an attempt at a personal health record, turned out to be an unqualified failure, the consensus was that people just weren’t interested.

But health care is too big, important and data-ridden a field for Google to ignore. And now the company has moved on to a concept sure to be in demand: It wants to help you live forever. Google’s new anti-aging initiative, Calico, will apparently treat mortality as a big-data problem.

But is data the path to eternal life — or even a few more good years? I’d feel a little more comfortable booking a cruise for the year 2199 if Google had accomplished something in health care already.

Google officials, including cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, haven’t said much about what Calico will actually do. But the project seems to take inspiration from 23andMe, a firm that Google helped to start and whose goal is “to make it possible to create a massive genomic database and thereby understand the permutations and mutations that happen to the human genome during the aging process,” according to the Washington Post.

Time explained in a feature article that 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,” the magazine continued. “And Google is very, very good with large data sets.”

When you put it that way, it sounds kind of reasonable. And if Google invents a medication, an app or a device that brings about a longer lifespan, then I will certainly take it, download it, wear it or whatever is required. But I doubt the human lifespan is quite that reducible.

The rich and powerful have often hoped to use their resources to overcome their mortality. And as Pete Shanks wrote, “immortality and transhumanist ideas generally have long been a source of fascination in Silicon Valley.”

Ray Kurzweil, Google’s engineering director, is a noted futurist who believes we’ll upload our minds to computers and achieve digital immortality by 2045. It’s not clear what role, if any, Kurzweil will have in Calico.

The human lifespan doesn’t seem to have budged in 100,000 years, but that’s not to say it’s impossible. I don’t doubt that humans’ maximum time on Earth could be increased. Maybe. Someday. For the longest time, humans didn’t fly or play Minecraft, either. And it’s been done in other species.

But Shanks was right when he wrote of Calico that “what’s most aggravating is the hubris involved.” A common fallacy among highly successful people is to think that expertise in one area will apply to other fields.

Google is great at search. Its map service is also ubiquitous, and I’ve heard that its driverless car works well. But when it comes to chaotic human data, the company’s algorithms might not work as well. Take free-form language, for example. When I use Google Translate to decipher the Chinese-language Wikipedia entry for “immortality,” I get sentences like this: “If you can maintain Chang Heng unchanged, it is possible to ‘live forever,’ but before the observation Everything in the world is now, whether living or heartless thing, and both are changing all the time.” It’s an app that can be helpful, but it doesn’t give me confidence that Google can overcome the limitations of our mortal coils. It can barely understand what we’re talking about.

And Google’s track record in health care is, of course, not so strong. Google Health, introduced in 2008 as a way for consumers to collect their health records online, was defunct by the end of 2011. Few consumers found it worth the effort of entering their data, given Google Health’s lack of capabilities such as appointment scheduling, InformationWeek reported.

Let’s hope that whatever Calico comes up with proves more useful. If it can be packaged as a free download, even better.

But I’d rather see Google invest its considerable resources in something with a higher chance of a payoff.