Follow Datanami:
September 24, 2013

Can Google Harness Big Data to Ward Off Death?

Alex Woodie

Google left a lot of people scratching their heads last week when it announced it had founded a new venture called the California Life Company (Calico) that aims to discover ways to extend human life. Executives didn’t reveal details about how the “moonshot” could cheat the Grim Reaper, but the smart money is on some application of big data.

The lack of good information on Google’s latest business venture is probably by design. Google “California Life Company” and you’ll find links to some of the most Web savvy life, health, and automobile insurance companies in the Golden State. Even Time Magazine, which was given exclusive access to CEO Larry Page and Dr. Arthur Levinson, the former Genentech CEO who signed on to head up Calico, couldn’t crack the closely guarded secret about what, exactly, Calico will do.

Which leads us to wild speculation, which is probably what Google wants. After all, what is wild speculation on the Internet other than a variation on crowd sourcing? Getting smart people from all over the world to chime in with possible ideas on saving lives is one of the resources that Calico has at its disposal, in addition to Google’s $54 billion savings account (although the exact spending on Calico is expected to be a more modest $10-million-plus per year).

An application of Hadoop and MapReduce against huge untamed sets of health-related data would be a perfectly rational approach to the slightly crazy idea that a software company can “solve death,” as Time Magazine so aptly put on its cover.

The Grim Reaper may be reduced to playing birthdays and bar mitzvahs if Google has its way.

This was the thinking of Ezra Gotthiel, an analyst at Technology Business Research. “I think the approach will be analysis of huge unstructured databases,” Gotthiel told the publication Singularity Hub, “and if Calico can get traction there, the applications are endless.”

Google is already using its profound grasp of the Internet to give people actionable health information. The Google Flu Trends website provides a graphical representation of the volume and location of Web searches for flu-related topics, which the company has discovered is correlates to the actual incidence of flu around the world.

Incidentally, giving people an upper hand on flu would actually be an effective and financially efficient way to increase average lifespan. “People are usually surprised that pneumonia and influenza are among the top 10 killers in the U.S., and that shouldn’t be true for us,” Sharon Orrange, a professor of medicine at the University of Southern California, told Singularity Hub.

Page hinted in the Time article that Calico won’t be going after cancer, which is pretty well funded already. “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,” the Google CEO is quoted by the magazine as saying. “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, it’s very, very sad, but in the aggregate, it’s not as big an advanced you might think.”

Medical researchers all over the world are hoping to use data analytics to jumpstart the creation of major scientific breakthroughs. The U.S. Government got into the game earlier this year, when the National Institute of Health announced its Big Data to Knowledge initiative, in which it will dole out $100 million over four years to projects that show promise in harnessing big data for medical breakthroughs.

“For most of the history of biomedical research, the limiting factor was acquiring data to analyze. Now, new technologies have been developed that can generate enormous amounts of data, so data generation is no longer the limiting factor,” said Dr. Mark Guyer, the deputy director of the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute and one of the executives leading the BD2K program.

Bringing the right analytical tools to bear on the vast amounts of medical data could yield some real breakthroughs, including new drugs and better advice for how to live longer. It could also bring vast riches to the people who make the breakthroughs. Levinson’s former company, Genentech, made billions of dollars helping people with cancer live a bit longer with its blockbuster drug, Avastin.

It’s unlikely that Google is going for the big bucks with Calico. After all, the primary players are already rich. Think of it more along the lines of creating a legacy and giving back to society, i.e. the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and maybe even Larry’s Ellison Medical Foundation.

“I think that if Google succeeds, this would be their greatest gift to humanity,” David Sinclair, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, told The New York Times. “I’m sure they don’t mean that they will defeat death, but if they were to give people five or 10 years of healthy life, that would change the world.”

Related Items:

Doctors Look to Medical Informatics for Novel Cures

Thinking in 10x and Other Google Directives

The Power and Promise of Data Driven Medicine