What if Page and Brin could turn back time with their Calico venture?

ZDNet Health columnist Denise Amrich takes a look at Google's new "moonshot" project and discusses the implications of extending human life and what that mean to all of us.
Written by Denise Amrich, Contributor
If Cher couldn't turn back time, what chance do Page and Brin have?

When I was a kid, I used to love the public library. My parents liked that I was a reader, but they really had no idea what it was that I was reading. I found the relatively paltry science fiction section. Even though there were fewer science fiction books in that library than I now have on my Kindle, I was still able to meet Asimov, Heinlein, Silverberg, Caidin, Bova, and all the rest.

My parents were happy I was reading, but if they knew the sorts of ideas I was being exposed to as a young, pre-teen, I think they would have blown their tops. Utopian worlds, post-apocalyptic worlds, monsters, robots, cyborgs, time-traveling grandpas, immortality, sex in space... you get the picture.

There were, of course, many premises, some of which have found their way into real-life today. We don't have flying cars, but we have smartphones, for example.

Science fiction writers often rely on a variety of tropes and archetypes to get their stories launched. One of the ones most familiar to both science fiction readers and comics fans is the brilliant billionaire as superhero archetype.

The idea is that the billionaire has so much money and so many resources at hand that he (unfortunately, usually a he) can create wonderful toys that normal humans can't. For two such examples, I point you to Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark.

Tony Stark's Iron Man suit came to mind as I read the various stories about Google's new venture, the California Life Company (otherwise known as Calico).

Now, normally, when you'd have a company named something like California Life, you'd assume it was an insurance company. You could probably make the case that Google's California Life Company is also an insurance company, but instead of making actuarial bets on when you're going to die, Calico is trying to -- and here's the scifi -- actually extend life.

Let me point out that this venture is coming from the company that has indexed most of the world's information, is trying to use fleets of high-altitude balloons to bring Internet service to areas with no infrastructure, has taken pictures of nearly every physical road, street, and building on the planet, and has developed a car that has successfully driven -- on its own -- on California freeways.

I'm not going to recount the news item itself. Rachel King wrote a fine summary of the news, VentureBeat dug in to try to triangulate on what Google is up to, the New York Times has an interesting piece, and TIME Magazine devoted their cover article to the question of whether Google can solve death.

The Times reported an interesting quote about the project -- not from the Google guys -- but from Apple head Tim Cook: "It’s not very many people who have the opportunity to reverse time."

What I want to do is think about the implications a bit. The whole idea of this "moonshot" that Page talks about is that they want to solve/cure/eliminate/reduce aging within the next 20 years.

Coincidentally, that's about the time that Larry Page and Sergey Brin will be entering their senior years. In 20 years, both Page and Brin will be 60. More to the point, many of the Baby Boomer generation -- a very large population -- will be approaching their 80s.

Let's just assume Calico works. It's definitely a moonshot, but so was Google Street View. What happens? What do we do with millions of never-aging octegenarians?

Speaking more realistically, where does the not-aging stop aging? Presumably, the idea is not to stop the clock that grows children into adulthood, but to stop the cellular degeneration that characterizes aging. In theory, this would mean that healthy adults could go on living longer as healthy adults.

That's a nice thought. I love my life with my husband, and I'd certainly like to have as much time as possible. But I'm not entirely sure I'd want to keep going into my 90s or hundreds, even if I were healthy. Can you imagine just how many ZDNet Health stories I'd have to come up with if I lived another 80 years?

And then there's the population problem. Our population is already growing at too fast a pace for our resources. If we keep all these Neverlanders, where they never age and they never grow up, how are we going to handle the food, energy, and even medical care needs of a increasingly growing (but not dying off) population?

What if Page could turn back time and reach the stars? Would he give them all to us? Or is the magic fountain of youth going to be restricted to the wealthiest among us? Is there some sort of Ayne Rand selectivism going to be practiced where only those most worthy will have access to these expensive treatments?

On the other hand, we do know that the bulk of health care expense is spent on our senior citizens. If we could reduce that cost, we'd all save a lot of money. But then again, America's health care industry is the largest business category on the planet. If we reduce the need to spend trillions on health care, would we then be tossing all those people out of work and all those physicians off the golf course?

My point in all this is that it's very exciting (in a comic-book superhero sort of way) that Google is investing in prolonging life. But I really don't want my psyche uploaded to Google's servers so the minute I start thinking about chocolate, my brain shows me ads for Häagen-Dazs.

There's a lot to think about here. Incredible science can be used for good. But it can also have negative effects. My one suggestion to the misters Page and Brin is that if they invest millions into prolonging life, they throw a few bucks to ethicists so they have a good picture of what they might be creating.

That, and they should probably go and watch Jurassic Park once again. You never know what "life" will do with itself once you give it free reign.

Oh, and one final thought: I really wish they hadn't named their venture "Calico". You'd think that of all people, Page and Brin would know that kittens rule the Internet and searching for news on Calico (the venture) will always be trumped by "Murkin the dog playing with cute adorable calico kitten".

Yes, it's a gratuitous dog and kitten video. But you don't really mind, do you? I know you watched it. You did, didn't you? Yes you did.

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