Time magazine had a fairly provocative cover article in a recent issue. The article was about Calico, Google's new venture whose commitment is to the solving the 'death problem.' The company brief is that it "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, and Apple chairman. The basic drive behind all this is Google's belief that medicine is becoming an information science (something that Mark C. Taylor has noted in his great book, The Moment of Complexity, arguing that it is important to expand our notion of information to make it as inclusive as possible),as the article notes
"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."
This idea should really come as no surprise, Google is a big company and has its eye on any number of ideas connected to the flourishing of life. Larry Page, one of Google's founders, is also one of the founders of the Singularity University, an institution committed to exploring a future,
"when a superior intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state." So a desire to extend and prolong life might fit nicely with that perspcetive.
Personally I think that the idea of singualrity is more connected to America's fascination with a particular interpretation of apocalypticism, it's not too far away from religious 'end-of-the-worlders' in my mind, but to each his own, and there are some very interesting ideas and technologies coming out of this thinking. The idea that technology can solve the world's ills has always been a part of the human/technology equation, and let's face it, there have been advancements in the state of human affairs greatly benefitted by tech advances, but I am not fully convinced that we will ever fully 'transcend all the limitations of our biology,' as another founder Ray Kurzweil claims, I am in fact, not sure we should even try--life is lived in the shadow of death, and, in spite of our protestations to the contrary, I think that attempting to transcend all the limitations of our biology is a bit of a fairy tale dressed up in scientific-techno-babble for the most part. Of course I could, and probably am, wrong.
There was a quote from Page that I did find a little troubling,
"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.”
I understand, I think, the larger context in which this is being said, and I might agree to a degree if my lens were simply data, but that's not the lens through which we uniquely see life is it? Life is not measured by data, it's measured by moments, by breath, encounter, experience, dust, dirt, grime, joy, sex, work, play and all the other immeasurable elements that make up what it means to be alive and spread out over mathematical equations and statistical probabilities these become inconsequential.
So perhaps he's right, maybe in the grand scheme of things a cure for cancer is small fish, but it's worth it if you ask me. It seems to me there are lots of things that could be done before resources are devoted to this pursuit--life expectancy could be addressed by things as simple as re-distribution of wealth, food, or health and medicine resources, but that cuts into systems of power and control?
Anyway, I don't have any real answers, I thought it was a very interesting article ( I am not even that down on the idea), that raises important questions about how and in what way we deal with the challenges of life and what we might perhaps prioritize in our pursuit of human flourishing.