Google unveiled its new anti-aging initiative, Calico, to much fanfare last month. The exclusive story of “Can Google Solve Death?” was splashed across the cover of TIME magazine while tech bloggers scrambled to figure out the true meaning of Google’s “strange or speculative” new venture. To hear Google execs tell the story, Calico aims at nothing less than extending human life spans by 100 years or more. Given enough time, Google might even defy the aging process and make us immortal.
And, the brilliance of all this is that President Obama’s Affordable Care Act may end up making this possible within our lifetime.
Of course, the Google guys – Larry Page and Sergey Brin – won’t talk about Obamacare and the potential role of government in making Calico a success, and you won’t find any mention of the ACA in the Google press release. Perhaps Google already saw how its earlier healthcare initiative, Google Health, encountered government obstacles along the way. Instead, Page and Brin prefer to focus on the Silicon Valley narrative – Calico is a classic story of outsider tech entrepreneurs attempting nothing less than upending the medical establishment. To Page and Brin, Calico is just another “moon shot” project along the lines of Google Glass or the Google driverless car – a pure tech-fueled initiative of Silicon Valley private sector know-how, and not a massive government project.
But consider how Obamacare could give a boost to Calico.
Right now, the people most likely to benefit from Obamacare are the people without any health insurance whatsoever – literally, tens of millions of people who live in daily fear of injuring themselves or dealing with a health problem that’s not life-threatening, but nevertheless, life-shortening. They’re making a rational economic choice by not being insured — healthcare is just too expensive now.
However, with the new health care exchanges and insurance subsidies promised by Obamacare, millions of new people could enter “the pool.” And that means they will start doing all the small things once beyond their reach — going in for annual exams, seeing their doctors more often, and exploring new government-funded programs to help them lead a healthy lifestyle.
That, however, is just from a healthcare perspective. From a Big Data perspective, millions of Americans will now be contributing their data to science.
And Big Data is in the sweet spot of Calico. It now appears that Google Calico is meant to be some kind of Big Data venture inspired in part by 23andMe, co-founded by Anne Wojcicki (the wife of Sergey Brin). One goal of 23andMe was 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. Something remarkable happens when tens of millions of people are added to the system and these people are given incentives to share and explore their health information as part of a Big Data, genome-inspired project.
Yes, that’s right. Google reduces immortality to a game of data mining and increasingly clever algorithms. The search for the most relevant website becomes a transcendental search for the most relevant sections of the human genome responsible for aging. As Tech Crunch pointed out in its “WTF is Calico?” story, there are actually a burgeoning number of life-extension projects that rely heavily on Big Data for their future success. Transform the genetic code of the human body into a digital code of 1’s and 0’s, and you’re well on the way to making notions like “Immortality” purely a computational problem — like winning a chess match with Death.
Of course, that’s a hasty over-simplification of things. But it does point to the type of innovation that might be unlocked if non-traditional healthcare providers – like Google or Apple – get involved as the result of Obamacare. All of a sudden, you don’t have a bunch of legacy players – pharmaceutical companies, doctors, insurers – with legacy approaches attempting to innovate their way out of the American healthcare debacle. You get people like Arthur Levinson, former Genentech CEO and Apple chairman, who was tapped by Google to lead the Calico venture.
And, moreover, you get people like Ray Kurzweil – one of the world’s foremost experts on immortality as the result of his work on the Singularity – who just so happens to be an executive at Google these days. You can see where Google might going with this – what if health is reduced to being just a technology puzzle, a big data problem to be pondered by the world’s smartest scientists and data engineers? And Obamacare will make even more data available, from different types of people, at exactly the right time to take advantage of new advances in computing power.
Not to say that nothing could go wrong. There are Hollywood blockbuster films dedicated to the premise of tech companies giving us things – like eternal life and the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind – with insidious consequences. Calico, which is apparently short for “California Life Company,” sounds like a name of one of those sci-fi film corporations. And even Google admits that it has absolutely no idea of what to do next. They brought in top talent and want to start breaking stuff. That’s all we really know.
This is exciting stuff, hopefully so exciting that all the people trying to de-fund Obamacare will take a step back and realize that Obamacare might stimulate new Silicon Valley players to get involved and unlock the types of healthcare innovation that has never existed before. If that happens, good health will not just be for the economic elite who can afford it, but for everyone.