20 September 2013

Google’s next big challenge: death.

A Google doodle transforms the familiar logo into a science lab replete with beakers, vials ... and a steaming coffee pot. (Google)

First they dominated the desktop. Now they’re after the afterlife.

Google on Wednesday announced Calico, an ambitious new company that aims to solve some of the biggest problems facing humanity today: illness, aging, diseases and ultimately death.

If it were anyone but Google, the sheer audacity of the goal would be laughable. But coming from the company that redefined the Internet, funds projects to land on and mine the moon, and invented a self-driving car, it's at least worth listening to.

'[We invest in] things that are a little more long-term and a little more ambitious than people normally would. More like moon shots.'
- Google CEO Larry Page

“I’m not proposing that we spend all of our money on those kinds of speculative things,” Google CEO Larry Page told Time. “But we should be spending a commensurate amount with what normal types of companies spend on research and development, and spend it on things that are a little more long-term and a little more ambitious than people normally would. More like moon shots.”

Like Google, Calico will be no ordinary company. The company -- the name is short for the “California Life Company” -- will be headed up by Arthur D. Levinson, chairman and former CEO of Genentech and the chairman of Apple. Calico's unveiling was coordinated with a Time magazine cover story on the project, appropriately titled “Google vs. Death.”

“It’s worth pointing out that there is no other company in Silicon Valley that could plausibly make such an announcement,” wrote Harry McCracken and Lev Grossman. “Smaller outfits don’t have the money; larger ones don’t have the bones. Apple may have set the standard for surprise unveilings but, excepting a major new product every few years, these mostly qualify as short-term.”

“Last week Apple announced a gold iPhone; what did you do this week, Google? Oh, we founded a company that might one day defeat death itself,” they wrote.

What the company will actually do is unclear, however, and not even Time could tease out the details. Google is good at analyzing and working with large data sets, the writers noted, and the company might research new technologies.

Or it might not.

Regardless, the problems Calico seeks to solve are ones that affect us all, Page said in an statement about the new company.

“Illness and aging affect all our families. With some longer term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives.”

Read more: Google may be crafting its own self-driving cars, tinkering with robo-taxis


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