Google’s Calico – Maybe Not Such a Good News


One doesn't simply solve death

On September 18 Google announced their crusade against death via the Time journal cover. Calico company was created specifically to fight aging. Larry page made it clear for the shareholders that Google is an innovative company and that they can afford the most courageous projects, while the investments won’t be too large and won’t undermine the foundations of the company.

First of all I was cheering with joy: one of the largest companies in the world started to do the most important thing in the world. Even some modest success in fighting aging means hundreds of millions of saved lives. Defeating aging is the absolute happiness of billions of people. There can’t be better news than the one about massive funding of research in life extension. However, my euphoria wore off quite rapidly when I analyzed what was said and what the authors of the mega project should have said but haven’t.

Unfortunately, I have to state a sad fact that the initiators of Calico aren’t going to be effective enough in fighting death but just exploiting the topic of life extension in order to look forward-minded and decisive people. This California company is not going to be involved in the work of thanshumanists and aging fighters of the whole world, but makes a strike at us by misinforming the society. Let me explain what I mean by that. Fighting aging is not the activity of one or several companies, it sure is not WiFi balloons, but in fact, billions of lives are at stake. The life of every person depends on scientific research in fundamental mechanisms of aging. Google took the responsibility for that. In many situations this means that it scared off some potential investors. People thought (and I have already encountered this): “Well, why should we chip in when such big money started to work on this problem?”

The announced project has no content, therefore it looks all-encompassing. It’s a problem that there is no information on how exactly they want to cure aging, what kind of research they will be based on. No company in the world can go in all of the directions that may lead to the victory at once. The world needs to know what it’s about: stimulating immune system, regulating regeneration, creating viral constructs carrying longevity genes, eliminating senescent cells, regulating biological clock? What’s the focus, Calico? This information is needed to distribute the efforts and immobilize even more resources for various technologies. No one in the world can say what is going to be more effective: regulating microbiota, stimulating stress resistance or therapeutic cloning?

One can suppose that Calico company holds some kind of a secret. But where could it come from, if there is nobody announced as part of the team who would have successes in the life extension field and would be a recognized expert in the area of studying mechanisms of aging? Levinson? He’s got no publications in this area. It’s actually a mystery, how he will be able to find time for solving the most complicated problem in the world, having at least three other places of work (chairman of the board for Apple, NGM Biopharmaceuticals, and Hoffmann-La Roche).

Over the last 40 years dozens of people thought that they had the secret to superlongevity in their poket. They all were victims of their own illusions and being in love with their good idea. Solving the problem of aging from the scientific point of view is incredibly complicated. It is naive to think that one good idea will do the trick. It is also irrational to place the cart in front of the horse, meaning, in this case, to make money without carrying out large-scale fundamental research. Generally, commercial interest in our field is a complication for solving the task. Furthermore, striving to gain profit starts to prevail and people begin producing profitable products like supplements, which are useless for life extension purposes.

It’s likely that in the area of life extension most effective will be distributed multi-center research – which is definitely not working in the interest of a single commercial company. What if Google fails? Like Google failed at Google Health, like there are no breakthroughs in curing Parkinson’s, like the Breakthrough Prize didn’t play even a tiny role in life extension, like there is no implementation of promising $1 billion by Google Ventures. What did they promise, “cryogenics”? So, where is it? Where are the announced life extension startups from Google Ventures? Google’s failure can become the failure for the whole industry. Again, people will say: “Oh, look, Google couldn’t do it, therefore there is nothing that can be done.“

I would like to call the founders of Calico to more openness and to using social and political tools in fighting aging. We are facing many goals, including education, and making the value of human life and the value of research aimed at its preservation clear for the society and governments. I would also like to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that there is no organizational solution found yet, that would secure funding of good research projects on human longevity. We will have to find it or die.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “Google’s Calico – Maybe Not Such a Good News

  1. Patience. Google just stepped into this area, and can’t be expected to have firm plans yet. Besides, it sounds like they are open to a wide variety of possible solutions, not confined to a few. Having that kind of money and publicity is invaluable. It gives the movement legitimacy and a way to share critical ideas. As you say, there are too many people doing their own thing and we need more sharing. Google can provide that, as it has with alternate energy forums. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16775005
    and http://www.google.com/green/
    We also have to face the fact that death is caused by the degeneration of many vital functions, and we won’t solve that all at once. There is no magic un-bullet. I’m just hoping that organs can be regrown, and maybe brain cells rejuvenated before I kick off, finally. That’ll be good for maybe 20 more years of healthy living. Anything else is gravy. You’re still young enough that you may see more progress.
    Meanwhile, we need more resources dedicated to this task, and to science in general, and unfortunately, that’ll mean reallocating resources and re-prioritizing spending. It doesn’t help that we reward unproductive rent-seeking over production (like finding anti-aging therapies). I’m working on the economic reform front too, because of that.

  2. These are valid points, and it’s too bad that the mission is apparently so nebulous. Hopefully they’ll soon get more specific about what they intend to do.

    I do think it could still be beneficial in one way, and that’s by lending the prestige of one of the world’s biggest entities to life-extension research. One of the biggest problems, it seems, is getting past the sheer incredulity with which many people react to the idea — defeating death still sounds more like magic than science, or it sounds like something that might be achieved in a thousand years rather than the near future. If Google is taking an interest, that gives it greater credibility.

    If Google really wanted to contribute to progress, they would set up something like a foundation to make grants (or even investments) in life-extension projects whose authors do know what they’re doing and just need funding. Maybe they, or someone like Bill Gates, could be persuaded to do it that way, now that they’ve shown an initial interest in the field.

  3. My guess is that Google’s startup will ultimately buy up most of the researchers working on workable projects. Remember the age bracket of the Google founders, they have VERY personal motivations to make it work. The weakness in the Google approach will be that it’s narrowly targeted on research targeted to life-extension. To make it do what they want it to do will require funding across the life science field.

    That happens when billionaires and large corporations are willing to pay taxes to support things like research grants. What I hear from most of the people working in actual science is massive cutbacks from increasingly defunded governments whose leadership is trying to cut taxes.

    I expect them to have a great deal of success, but the results will be unaffordable to the masses. And those successes won’t be remotely close to most of those who follow this actually want. But Google will have lots of patents.

  4. “The life of every person depends on scientific research in fundamental mechanisms of aging. Google took the responsibility for that. In many situations this means that it scared off some potential investors. People thought (and I have already encountered this): “Well, why should we chip in when such big money started to work on this problem?””

    Wow, that’s a pretty stern indictment. Google did not take responsibility for every person who depends on the scientific research in fundamental mechanisms of aging. In fact, it was a shrewd move, since this is another reason to want to work at Google. There are many players in the RLE race, and just because Google is the 800 pound gorilla that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for more. A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace.

    • VC funders move in herds. Google investment means concept of investing in life extension is something that vulture capital can take seriously. Also note the serious Silicon Valley money is largely controlled by aging Boomers who know “you can’t take it with you”. This is the start of a wave of serious investment from multiple sources.

  5. Excellent analysis as usual Maria: I am nevertheless not pessimistic; The wife of one of the founfers of Google launched the compaqny 23AndMe selling the analysis of the SNPs of your genome for about 100 $ ( i will try next week on muself and my wife) imho Calico wants to build upon this initial experiment and try to correlate genomics data with the onset of age related diseases still a far cry from deciphering the multiple complex aging processes.

  6. Here’s a possible take on Google’s Calico: We all know how Google wants to have all our information and track our every move. With the advent of programs like the PGP (Personal Genome Project) and the cost of mapping a person’s genome plummeting, perhaps they are looking at capturing our health records and combining them with our individual genomes to solve human health problems like aging. The vast power and control they could gain can only be comprehended by a mind of the future. I’m just saying;)

  7. Perfect, I confirm your opinions.

  8. My impression is that Calico is a big data company, rather than a medical research and development one. Apparently this is a good business plan, because a number of other start up companies are doing the same thing – accumulating gigantic reams of data (made possible by the dramatic price drop of the cost of digitizing genetic information from samples), then looking for gold in them there hills. This is definitely not the SENS approach which many of us favor, nor the pharmaceutical approach that many others are using. I am in agreement with Maria, but would add that I fear virtual immortality is within reach, and the greatest challenge isn’t technical but philosophical and psychological, and therefore the most important approach is the development of artificial super intelligence.

    “James Kirkland, a researcher who studies ageing at the Mayo Clinic, says he knows of about 20 drugs now – more than six of which had been written up in scientific journals – that extended the lifespan or healthspan of mice.
    The aim is to begin tests in humans. Kirkland says the informal ambition in his field is to increase healthspan by two to three years in the next decade or more. (The EU has an official goal of adding two years to healthspan by 2020).” -Longevity News Digest, MaxLife, January 20, 2015

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