Creative Commons Image by Doug Wheller

Who Is Calico For?

on Thursday, Sep. 26th

The moment Google announced the formation of Calico, a new venture headed up by former Genentech CEO Arthur D. Levinson tasked with taking on the "challenge of aging and associated diseases," I grew a little queasy.

Many tech writers were quick to call this a "moonshot on immortality". Actually, Google uses the term "moonshot", but steers clear of the I-word. With visions of forever-pills and recombinant gene therapy swimming in my all-too-baseline human brain, I felt a twinge of panic: who is this really for?

With some longer term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives.–Larry Page, Google CEO

That "millions of lives" is the catch. After all there are thousands of millions–we usually refer to this as billions–of people on the planet. We still talk about "The 1%", a term made famous two years ago by Occupy Wall Street. When we do this we are actually talking about millions of people.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, if unintentionally so, Calico was announced just one day after the anniversary of Occupy.

The issues that humanity faces as a species extend far beyond the needs experienced on a daily basis in Silicon Valley. It might be all well and good for the insanely wealthy to pursue moonshot dreams of immortality–physical and digital alike–but who will have access to that technology?

Will we see a bifurcation of the human genome that hard-codes status–1 and 99% alike–into DNA? The evolution of a wealthy subspecies? Something akin to the long-lived, asexually reproducing Spacers of Isaac Asimov's fiction? An even more twisted version of the relationship between the Eloi and Morlocks of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine? It would seem this is something the past masters of science fiction were trying to warn us about.

We don't even have to look that far back to see science fiction dramatizing what happens when the incredibly wealthy gain access to medical technology far beyond that of mortal men. This summer's "Elysium" may not have done gangbusters at the box office, but the warning was still there, buried underneath Jodie Foster's unplaceable accent.

For all its flaws as a film, the medical-tech side of "Elysium" is worth pondering in light of Calico. Not nearly as outlandish as Asimov's Spacers of Wells' Morlocks, the 1% in Neill Blomkamp's film hoard an essentially magical medical technology. The technology depicted may be over-the-top, but the underlying social question is very real: who has a right to access to this level of technology?

There are downsides to the idea of a virtually immortal population. The planet appears to be having enough trouble supporting the seven billion people that we have already. How many more resources would humanity consume if it lost its penchant for dying off? Does the moonshot thinking that will take place at Calico consider the impact an aging population will have on the generations that would normally replace them?

On an individual level, the idea of a longer, healthier life is incredibly attractive. It is hard to turn your back on the idea that your loved ones can be saved from deteriorating bodies, or that you yourself could be able to live as long as you please. The will to live is very much hard-coded into our bodies, and the urge to reach out and grab this technology is only human.

Still the question is there, blinking like a angry cursor on a blank computer screen: If near-immortality is possible, who will Google elect to receive the gift?

Will it be the rich? The hyper-intelligent? The most popular YouTubers? They probably have an algorithm.

I, for one, am going to hedge my bets. Follow me on Google+, and I'll follow you back. It can't hurt our chances. 

Image: Doug Wheller/Creative Commons/Flickr

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