By ZACK LABE
As the fear of death continues to plague the human consciousness, innovative Google CEO Larry Page believes that we can literally defeat death. Well, at least that’s what Calico, the latest beneficiary of Google’s investment, aims to do. In an official press release this September, Page expressed tentative hope regarding the project, explaining, “With some longer term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives.”
This idea of beating death once and for all sounds like something out of a SyFy Channel movie. But it’s not all that surprising that Google—the company that developed the autonomous car and created the original “Google” search that pretty much runs our lives—has decided to undertake the endeavor. And this is not the company’s only outrageous upcoming project: under the leadership of the infamous Page, Google has recently undertaken initiatives to design brain chip implants, create a mad scientist island, and provide Internet access via atmospheric balloons. These audacious ideas address age-old human questions, challenge morals, and could breach the ethical limits of technological intervention. Fearless in the face of countless privacy, copyright, and censorship suits, Google is certainly not afraid to approach such barriers.
Co-founded in 1996 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google began like many other Silicon Valley startups: in a standard suburban garage. 15 years later, Google announced it had surpassed one billion unique visits on its popular search engine homepage. And, in January 2013, Google’s annual revenue surpassed $50 billion. This quick success is certainly attributed to the company’s original ambitious goal: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Google has now expanded well beyond its origins as a search engine; research in self-driving cars and giant balloons in space has now become prime projects for one of the world’s most successful companies.
Initially, these projects seem to focus on necessary technological reformations and improvements to everyday life. Take concepts such as Project Loon, for example. Project Loon is an ongoing research project that places large balloons in the stratosphere to provide Internet access to remote areas of the world. Yes. Large balloons circulating the globe may soon be a reality. Google hopes this network will increase Internet access for people in rural areas and developing countries. Concepts such as universal web access may be well intentioned, but are actually not focused on more pressing issues, such as solving world hunger or curing diseases. Critics like Bill Gates have been quick to respond: “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek in August.
Globally, access to technology is a leading cause of wealth disparity. However, as Bill Gates surmised, with the amount of available resources Google has in all markets, it seems a bit precocious for them to focus on improving only their own network instead of other larger societal problems. Furthermore, think of the political boundaries that would be breached by this balloon flying across international air space. Google sees itself as an unstoppable entity and appears unconcerned with the feasibility of their initiatives. In fact, it often disregards any expert with a conflicting opinion. Famous aeronautical engineer and innovator Per Lindstrand claimed that the project is hopeless in a September interview with TechRadar.
“I talked to them about it,” he said. “I told them it was a waste of time, but they didn’t listen.”
According to Lindstrand, atmospheric conditions make it nearly impossible for this type of system to last for more than a few days. It is frightening to see Google’s denial of competition and outside expertise when developing its ideas.
In addition, the latest rumor to hit the tech blogs surrounds the future intentions of Google Glass and Google’s apparent scheme to implant chips in the human brain. In the book In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, Steve Levy quotes Larry Page as saying, “When you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information… eventually you’ll have an implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer.” Glass—Google’s computer eyewear—can already grasp what its users are thinking pretty well. The Glass website invites you to say, “say ‘take a picture’ to take a picture, answer without having to ask, translate your voice, and ask whatever’s on your mind.” Glass is the first advance in this automated technology initiative. To further personalize the technological experience, Google sees these brain implants as a possibility to revolutionize day-to-day life.
But perhaps their most ambitious project yet is Calico, or The California Life Company. The premise behind the plan is simple: to take a radical approach to the medical field by promoting a focus on the aging process. In the September 30 issue of Time, Page claimed, “for too many of our friends and family, life has been cut short or the quality of their life is too often lacking.” Page says the healthcare industry is currently focusing on the wrong thing.
“We think of solving cancer as this huge thing that’ll totally change the world,” he said. “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.”
Calico will be a separate entity under Google, utilizing separate employees and resources to focus on extending life as we know it. Page believes he can improve the lives of millions. Billions. While it sounds like a rewarding result, there are associated costs and concerns that go along with aging. It is important to live not only longer, but also better—to live at an equal, or greater, state of wellbeing later in life. It is expected that Calico will focus on crunching big data for the medical field and not limit its scope to only one disease. But, with such a broad spectrum of ailments and diseases, Calico may not be able to adequately solve individual problems. Already, efforts into DNA replication, cloning, and cryonics have been explored—but such a prospective concept may, frankly, be missing the mark. Instead, a focus on the current state of healthcare in rural and developing countries is a much-needed area of reform.
Google wants to be different. Google wants to be creative. Google wants a revolution. Larry Page is an idealist who wants to improve a product ten times better than the competition. The March issue of Wired highlighted this new approach: “The way Page sees it, a 10% improvement means that you’re doing the same thing as everybody else,” Levy wrote in the magazine’s cover story. “You probably won’t fail spectacularly, but you are guaranteed not to succeed wildly.”
The madness behind brain microchips is just one of these “power of 10” projects that Google calls “Moonshots.” Larry Page sees the technological field as a 99% virgin realm—and he’s right. If anyone has the resources, intelligence, manpower, and money, it is probably Google. According to Page,the technology industry is definitely doing one thing wrong, and that is its inability to work collaboratively. Page’s answer? Build a mad scientist island for engineers to work in ethereal harmony.
The unifying theme of these moonshot projects is technological personification, the idea that the user experience will become so life-like that these mechanisms seem natural. Computers and other machinery will be able to determine options for us based on our thoughts, likes, hates, and feelings. References and questions will be answered without even logging into a computer; this is our Smart House. Automation will dominate. Search engines will search before your search. Your car will drive before you drive. These ideas sound bizarre, but it is all about enhancing the user experience—to simplify and improve. Although Larry Page’s legacy as a CEO is not without its faults, he seeks to grow the company by ten times. It will be interesting to watch Google grow over the next few years. Google is far above and beyond a search engine—it is a company that encompasses much of what we do each and every day. The ambition behind such moonshot projects can be alarming, and without the novel minds at Google, the world would be a lot different. But is this for better or worse?
Technology has certainly improved certain aspects of society: people are living longer, globalization continues to rapidly expand communication, and day-to-day life is essentially simpler. But we will reach a tipping point where technology attempts to cross boundaries that should not be crossed. The concept of living forever is frightening. I do not want to live forever or have a microchip placed in my brain. Of course, the inevitability in technology and innovation is that we must always dream bigger and bigger. There will be problems and conflict along the way, but if anyone is to solve them…maybe it is Google? But hell, if anyone tries to stick a microchip in my brain, I will quickly be making a mad dash into the woods to become one with nature.