So Google wants to cure death – an Elysium for rich folk?

19 Sep 2013

Actor Matt Damon in a scene from sci-fi thriller Elysium

Internet giant Google has done the world many favours in its relatively short 15-year history. It has made the world’s knowledge searchable, it is changing how we communicate and it is attempting to make computers wearable. Now it wants to prolong life.

Yesterday, Google announced Calico, a new healthcare company that wants to cure the effects of aging and associated diseases. Apple chairman Arthur D Levinson will be the CEO and a founding investor.

“Illness and aging affect all our families,” said Google CEO Larry Page. “With some longer-term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives. It’s impossible to imagine anyone better than Art – one of the leading scientists, entrepreneurs and CEOs of our generation – to take this new venture forward.”

“For too many of our friends and family, life has been cut short or the quality of their life is too often lacking,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook.

“Art is one of the crazy ones who thinks it doesn’t have to be this way. There is no one better suited to lead this mission and I am excited to see the results.”

According to Time Magazine, which was given the exclusive story about Google’s latest foray entitled Google Vs Death, the endeavour raises questions: “The unavoidable question this raises is why a company built on finding information and serving ads next to it is spending untold amounts on a project that flies in the face of the basic fact of the human condition, the existential certainty of aging and death. To which the unavoidable answer is another question: Who the hell else is going to do it?”

All of this would have sounded brilliant and brave to this writer because that’s how marvellous companies like Apple and Google came about, someone dared to think big. That was until I noted a tweet last night by one of Time’s European editors, Catherine Mayer, who sagely noted: “There’s no point in living longer unless we live better.”

In her analysis, she notes: “But if one obvious flaw in the concept of radical life extension is that power and wealth might become concentrated in the hands of those with the power and wealth to afford the technologies, there’s another danger even in the more democratised, idealistic vision that seems to motivate Larry Page. Many of us already trust to science to fix everything, including the ravages of unhealthy living and a system that makes processed food cheaper than fresh produce. A high-profile initiative such as Calico reinforces the belief that immortality is just around the corner; that we just have to live long enough to live forever.”

Who wants to live forever?

Notice in his quote above Page said millions, not billions of lives.

Right now, certain Silicon Valley CEOs and their associates probably feel like gods – their revenues and profits are soaring into the stratosphere and they have the freedom and time to solve big-world problems. They lost one of their own – former Apple CEO Steve Jobs – two years ago and no doubt realise their time on this Earth decreases by the day. Maybe now they can do the impossible.

Earlier this summer I walked the streets of San Francisco, California, about an hour’s drive from the rarefied environment and lush canteens of Mountain View, watching panhandlers at work, attempts by the tech sector to “gentrify” long-neglected urban areas by moving young workers and their bulging wallets in, and I  noted how many people in the US in their late 60s and 70s who should be retired are continuing to work to put food on the table.

It was apparent that even in one of America’s wealthiest cities, poverty was just a shadow away.

In order to do the impossible you need to think big. And you need to work fast.

But prolonging life for a few while billions on our planet continue to live in appalling conditions conjures up to me the metaphor of Elysium, the recent dystopian thriller movie starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster where a few elite, rich people live off-planet in some kind of satellite resort, leaving billions to suffer below in poverty and illness.

But Google is being impossibly brave and most likely intends the best for the world – isn’t its creedo ‘don’t be evil’?

In decades to come, maybe some of us will be reaping the benefits of this. But should we not be anxious to resolve the economic and health problems that affect those alive right now? And to do so with a sense of urgency?

You could say Google et al have made a serious foray into this by their very existence. There is no better economic enabler than the internet. Access to broadband has been proven to boost incomes and fishermen in India and farmers in Ireland rely on their mobile phones to tell them any given day’s market prices or milk quotas.

Most of us have accepted death as a normal part of life. But it’s what goes on during that life is what is really important. Dignity, the pursuit of happiness, romance, friendship, time with our loved ones, time to make a mark and be remembered, time to make art, discover new science, bringing up our children in security and good health.

That applies to the 7bn or so people alive right now, not just the 1pc of a few wealthy souls who having already achieved the seemingly impossible, now crave immortality.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years