Google has been developing what is perhaps the company’s most ambitious project to date: a science startup that will pursue ‘solutions for aging’ with the intended goal of “solving death”.
Calico, a company directed by futurists to explore the concept of “singularity”, has partnered with pharmaceutical giants to research and trial new market drugs that target aging and development.
What is this new audacious project? Who is behind it? In the following feature, Ethan Nash explores.
A Google-backed life-extension company is searching for the eternal key to old age.
Calico, or the California Life Company, was announced as a project with the intended goal of combating aging and ‘associated diseases’, by investigating ways to “harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan”.
The company is listed as an American research and development biotech company, and according to the official description on their website:
“We will use that knowledge to devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives … and executing on this mission will require an unprecedented level of interdisciplinary effort and a long-term focus for which funding is already in place.”
Launched in 2013, the company has been developing new technologies, trials and projects relating to the theme of extending human life, with most remaining hidden behind doors for the time being.
In just under a year after launching, Calico announced that it was partnering with Chicago-based pharmaceutical giant AbbVie to develop and market new drugs targeting at ‘diseases associated with old age’.
Each partner of the organisation has committed to providing $250 million in funding with the option to each add another $500 million to the project.
The money was used to create a new research center in San Francisco, where Calico hire a team of researchers to discover new drugs and guide early development of trials.
AbbVie will focus on the clinical trials themselves, including late-stage development, and bringing ‘promising new drugs’ to market.
The company joins other far-out projects developed by the giant such as Google Glass, a pair of Internet-connect spectacles, and its self-driving car initiative run out of Google X, the company’s secretive research arm headed by co-founder Sergey Brin.
Google’s new Verily unit also is taking on the opioid crisis, joining with two health networks to build a tech-infused rehab campus in Dayton, Ohio.
But the question is, what does Calico actually do?
At the moment, the company isn’t giving much detail away.
Google introduced Calico to the world with the bold ambition of “solving death” in 2013.
In a detailed press release, Google CEO Larry Page and Google Ventures head honcho Bill Maris presented a plan to tackle this new radical field of research, and also introduced Arthur Levinson as the CEO of Calico.
Levinson, the firm’s leader, has had a storied career. He rose through the ranks to become CEO of Genentech in 1995. Levinson, who was previously a director at Google, is currently the Chairman of both Genentech and Apple‘s boards. He replaced Steve Jobs following his death.
In the absence of any real information, many commentators have speculated that .Calico are pursuing a ‘big-data’ approach to health: gathering massive amounts of information from patients and ‘crunching it’ to help speed the way to health care discoveries.
Some have suggested that Calico’s CEO will take the view that the best way to tackle aging is to focus on preventing diseases.
The statements from Page and Levinson thus far indicate quite strongly that the emphasis will not be just cancer, or even just a range of specific diseases, but will be ‘aging itself’.
Page has long been a fan of Kurzweil, an acclaimed inventor and author who popularized the concept of the singularity, a theoretical tipping point where technology becomes so advanced it begins to radically alter the fabric of our existence.
In the documentary Transcendent Man, Kurzweil openly talks about his ambition to achieve eternal life, even speculating that it might be possible to bring his dead father back from the grave in the process.
Kurzweil says that deploying tiny robots (or ‘nanobots’) in the body could .help overcome the problems of incorrect DNA replication – one of the central causes of aging.
Both Page and Maris have also expressed a deep interest in radical life extension and anti-aging technologies.
So far, the company has only offered little details about current experiments during a conference hosted by CB Insights, Axios reports.
Current research, which is in its earliest stages, is being done on mouse models, including 750 mice segregated into five groups with different diets.
The idea here is to explore how caloric intake influences overall health, similar to work by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on pinpointing howpoor diet and nutrition has an outsize effect on life expectancy and quality of life.
Furthermore, Calico scientists are tracking the growth of yeast cells to probe how cellular aging affects the behavior of cells, and how they begin to break down.
Despite this, many have asked just what really is going on behind the scenes at this project?
Could this program really be a guise for radical research into life extension technology?
The study of life science is increasingly about genetics, and genetics is becoming a question of computing power and machine learning.
While the amount of venture capital funding flowing into the life sciences has dropped precipitously since 2008, Google Ventures has been one of the few Silicon Valley investors expanding its stake in this area.
A broad range of technologies and therapies that promise life extension through different means are currently being researched and tested.
Cryonics is a process where the body – or occasionally just the head – is suspended in liquid nitrogen to ‘preserve’ it indefinitely. It is reported that three senior staff at Oxford University signed up to have their bodies frozen with two U.S.-based cryonics organizations: the Cryonics Institute and the Alcor Life Extension Foundation.
Cryotherapy, similarly, is incorporated by athletes across the world by using -160 degree conditions in short doses to freeze aging skin, thus leading to faster healing and functional longevity.
Nanotechnology, such as organ replacement, is also a process believed that longevity through repairing the human body can be achieved by replacing individual parts.
Similar programs include the .Human Brain Project, a billion-dollar plan to recreate the human mind inside a supercomputer – something like a science fiction nightmare.
But could this push by Google really be in pursuit of what is described as ‘technological singularity’, like many of these other companies?
AGING AND SINGULARITY
The concept of technological singularity is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial intelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization.
In 2008, Google became one of the corporate backers of the Singularity University, a new age university in Silicon Valley that focuses on scientific progress and “exponential” technologies.
The University was founded in 2008 by Peter Diamandis and, you guessed it, Ray Kurzweil, at the NASA Research Park in California, United States.
According to a report in the New York Times, Page and Google provided more than $250,000 in donations to help found the university and several of Google’s early employees have personally donated $100,000 or more.
In December of last year, .Google hired Kurzweil.
Levinson is another one of the corporate founders behind the Singularity University.
In his post announcing Calico, Page specifically thanked Bill Maris, saying he helped bring the project to life and get Levinson involved.
As Maris told the Wall Street Journal last year, “I’m interested in the ideas that sound a little crazy, such as radical life extension, curing cancer, being able to create a simulation of the human brain and map every neuron”.
Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world and CEO at Amazon is also funding Unity Biotechnology, a company working on medicines to fend off the ageing process for as long as humanly possible.
Why are so many major players throwing their weight around in this emerging field of research?
The launch of Calico was met with surprise and excitement. But as Google pushes further in the direction of radical life extension, it will likely incite a heated debate.
As of 2018, Calico has not developed any known drugs or biotechnology products.
Whether or not we really are on the verge of a new era of mass unemployment, as some predict, one thing seems assured: the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small ground of technology billionaires like Page and Bezos seems set to accelerate.
Stay tuned for our follow up feature piece,
Matrix: The Future of Neurotechnology and Augmented Reality.
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Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday | The New York Times
I’m excited to announce.. | Larry Page via Google+