From Google Ventures to Planet Google: An Historical Speculation

AP Photo/Jens Meyer, File
AP Photo/Jens Meyer

March 26, 2115 — From our perspective here in the early 22nd century, we might wish Google co-founder Larry Page a happy 142nd birthday—wherever the controversial digital-medical visionary might be located.

Yes, where’s Larry? Where, exactly, in the solar system is Larry Page? Why is he no longer living with us here on earth? And, perhaps most profoundly, how has he managed to break the record for human longevity? He is nearing, after all, the 150-year mark, and not only that, he seems to be in excellent health; from the hologram reports we have seen from his undisclosed extra-terrestrial location, he doesn’t appear to be a day over 42—which is to say, the last century hasn’t had any visible impact on him.

So therefore, more questions come surging to mind. How many more are there like Page? That is, energetic and life-abundant “centenarian-pluses”? And how might more of us, if we are so inclined, be able to join them in living a much longer and healthier life?


Yet one thing is painfully clear: It will take a significant change in our cultural and political assumptions to bring Page back to the planet of his birth. And until he returns, the science of longevity that he has mastered is also likely to stay hidden from us earthlings.


Even now, with Page having long fled the earth, decades ago, for the safety of space, these controversies are worth resolving, if we can—because the answers speak to our ability, and willingness, to allow genuinely disruptive innovation in the fields of longevity and life-extension.


It is widely believed that Page is residing on Titan, one of the moons of the planet Saturn, having decamped there with part of his considerable fortune in the mid-21st century. Interestingly, Page and his extensive trust are still substantial shareholders in Google and Google 2 here on earth; visitors to his “Fortress of Solitude,” wherever it is, speak of a four-dimensional Xanadu-like pleasure dome, although Page himself is known for his austere and hard-working lifestyle.


Needless to say, pinning down Page’s precise location is a major preoccupation. Some believe that he resides instead on Io, another moon of Saturn, while others say he is on Enceladus, yet another Saturnian moon. (There are, after all, at least 62 moons of Saturn, not counting some rather large orbital fragments contained in the planet’s famous rings.) Meanwhile, others maintain, variously, that he is on our moon, or on Mars, or even in a space station orbiting the earth. Some even say that he occasionally returns to earth for a surreptitious visit, using the Google 2 Invisibility Cloak.


So how did it happen that one of the greatest minds in human history ended up as a fugitive from humanity? Why did someone so smart and so successful feel the need to exile himself from earth?


Yes, thereby hangs a tale: a tale of technological vision, on the one hand, and technological incomprehension, on the other. Some have compared Page to Icarus, the mythological figure who with wings attempted to fly to heaven. But of course, there’s a crucial difference: Icarus soared and then crashed to earth, while Page just kept on going. Others have compared Page to another mythological figure, Tithonus, who wished for eternal life, and got it. But Tithonus forgot to ask for eternal youth, as well as life, and so as he aged he shrank down to nothing more than a a cricket-sized wisp of a man. But as we have seen with our own eyes, Page seems healthy and happy and full-sized—he is just elusive, that’s all.


Indeed, if we were to seek out an appropriate allegory for Page over the last century, we might think of the fairy tale, that of the goose laying the golden eggs. As in the tale, some would foolishly seek to cut the goose open, thereby killing it. But in this instance, the goose hasn’t been killed; it has simply moved—the wealth-producing bird is no longer on this earth.


Our look back at Page’s evolution, from earth-bound mortal to space-traveling immortal—at least so far—can begin more than 100 years ago, in 2011. That was the year when Apple CEO Steve Jobs died of cancer. He was only 56. The fact that Jobs could die so young, with so much money in the bank, was shocking to many. Suddenly, the “young immortals” of Silicon Valley were confronted—dead-on, we might say—with their own mortality.


Yet interestingly, during this era, the Washington, DC, political class had an entirely different focus. At that time, politicians and policy wonks were little interested in health; they were preoccupied instead with the minutiae of health insurance. Indeed, for much of the first and second decades of the 21st century, national politics was defined by the battle over “Obamacare.”


To be sure, these were important philosophic and economic debates, concerning everything from the Constitution to the rule of law to the nature of a productive economy.


Yet from the perspective of Silicon Valley billionaires and many others, the Obamacare debate, pro and con, was mostly irrelevant. After all, Steve Jobs didn’t die because he lacked health insurance; he died because he lacked a cure for cancer. As some wag said back then, for all his undeniable genius and vision, Jobs had practiced poor portfolio management. He had foreseen the need for the iPhone and the iPad, but he hadn’t thought through the need for better cancer treatment.


And if Jobs lacked a cure for cancer, so also did many Americans: In those days, cancer was killing more than a half-million of us every year. And of course, causes of death were not limited to cancer; for about 2.5 million Americans annually, the physical peril of death, from multiple causes, was a far bigger problem than the fiscal issue of health insurance.


It was during this time that the the world first learned about Google’s life-extension efforts. As the cover of Time (once a popular magazine) asked in 2013, “Can Google Solve Death?”


Google, of course, was then the leading search-engine company in the world, racking up huge financial profits. And yet Page and his Google co-founder, Sergey Brin, were restless spirits; they used those profits to fund all manner of daring enterprises. Through an entity called Google Ventures, the Google Twins waded into everything from driverless cars to space travel to, of course, medical research. Indeed, to further their efforts on longevity, Page, Brin, and Google created the California Life Company, or Calico, and poured billions into it, as well.


Yet interestingly, the Washington, D.C.-based political class was still not much interested in Google’s endeavors. Politicians, after all, tend to think in arithmetic and zero-sum terms (counting votes), whereas techsters tend to think in exponential and positive-sum terms (scientific breakthroughs). And that’s the difference between the political and technological worldview. Indeed, looking back on that systemic obliviousness, historians have noted that the East Coast “think tank” sector of that era was so clotted with lawyers and economists that it lacked the capacity truly to think; denizens of Beltway cubicles back then were bereft of the technological savvy to see what was really happening.


Yet this lack of interest began to change in 2015, when two things happened: First, then-President Barack Obama announced a “precision medicine initiative” that offered the promise of personalized medicine—that is, personalized cures. The idea behind precision medicine was startling in its simplicity; if doctors could figure out just the right “silver bullet” for complex diseases, then treatment would not only be better, but cheaper. That is, the medical equivalent of a small heat-seeking missile would prove more effective than a huge bomb. Second, a major report from Bloomberg News on Google Ventures’ life-extension efforts was featured on the Drudge Report; the Drudge Report, then as now, is an agenda-setting must-read.


The Bloomberg piece did, in fact, get people thinking about actual health, as opposed to just the proxy of health insurance. The president of Google Ventures, Bill Maris, was quoted as saying, “We probably won’t live forever, but we could live much longer, and better.” And many people read those words and thought to themselves, Yes, why not? Why not re-orient our healthcare system toward living longer and better?


Of course, not everyone agreed. For reasons we have seen, Washington, D.C. was particularly resistant to this new approach. But fortunately, D.C. didn’t speak for the whole of the country. As Maris noted, “There are a lot of billionaires in Silicon Valley, but in the end, we are all heading to the same place.” The Google Ventures chief then added words that served as a clarion call to many moguls: “If given the choice between making a lot of money or finding a way to make people live longer, what do you choose?”


Indeed, it was hard to argue against Maris. After all, piling up money didn’t do you any good if you were dead.


At this point, the political wheel began to turn: Even DC wonks started to understand that while health insurance was important, health itself was more important; a health-insurance system is only as good as the heath-science that backstops it. If there’s no cure or effective treatment, all the insurance coverage in the world doesn’t do much good.


Moreover, it became strikingly obvious to many that there was great economic wisdom in curing disease, as well as, of course, the humanitarian and ethical benefits. To put it bluntly: It was cheaper to beat a disease than to treat it; a cure was cheaper than care.


So, beginning with the 2016 presidential election, smart political leaders began to make the case for what was known, then, as the Cure Strategy. The country’s politics began to pulsate with new considerations of FDA regulation, trial-lawyer litigation, and HIPAA reform. Across the nation, ideas for medical enterprise zones, cure X-Prizes, and long-term low-interest-rate research bond sales were bandied about.


This renewed enthusiasm for curing disease recalled the earlier successes—such as the effort to develop a polio vaccine in the 1940s and 1950s, or the effort to eradicate smallpox in the 1960s and 1970s, or the effort to tamp down HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. In each case, a concerted effort had yielded up great success—and saved many lives.


Indeed, in the early 21st century, it became achingly apparent how much human capital, and human potential, was being lost to a single malady, Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). At the time that the big national push against AD was launched, some observers worried that our retirement systems would go broke if people lived longer. Yet as better AD treatments were introduced, policymakers realized that they could link those gains in health with a raising of the retirement age; that is, if people were living and staying healthy longer, they could work longer, too. A joke heard back then: “We have good news and bad news. The bad news first: You might have to work longer. But the good news is, You will know the names of your grandchildren.” Even AARP was persuaded to embrace this tradeoff. Ultimately, of course, both a cure and a vaccine for AD were introduced, and America grew even richer in the 21st century by selling the new AD drugs to the rest of the world.


Yet of course, our story is not entirely a happy one: The disruptive changes in medicine did, indeed, cause disruptive changes in politics.


As we know, Google Ventures and others were not satisfied with just eliminating a disease or two. These pioneers truly meant it when they said that they wanted to defeat death. And that ambition opened up a substantial, and seemingly unbridgeable, divide along ethical, moral, and political lines.


Thus we saw the cleavage between the “Methuselahs” and the “Naturals.” The Methuselahs, as we know, started out with a popular idea: They would resuscitate the lives of American GIs killed in the First, Second, and Third Middle Eastern Wars. The thinking was that if we could bring KIAs back to life, we would set a positive template for broader use in the civilian sector.


Unfortunately, not all of the efforts in GI-resuscitation were successful or satisfactory; any new science, rushed into production, will make mistakes, however unintended and inadvertent. And so messy revelations, and messier lawsuits, were common in the 2030s and 2040s. As a result, the Luddite forces of reaction—some called it simply jealousy—were unleashed.


Opponents said that Resuscitation was immoral, that it was a defiance of God’s law, or of natural law. Meanwhile, some Resuscitation proponents answered that Resuscitation was simply a new way of showing the power of God’s wonder. That was a soft and soothing answer, and yet at the same time, other Resuscitation proponents offered a hard and defiant answer: They said to the world, simply, We don’t care what you think, we want to do this. Such defiance was seen as impolitic and served only to strengthen the burgeoning clout of the Anti-Resuscitation League.


And so it was around the middle of the 21st century that the pendulum began to swing back—away from medical advance. The pro-science forces had achieved great success, but even so, they had not succeeded in developing a durable political consensus—a legal shield, one might way— around their efforts. And so, under assault, science was forced to retreat into the shadows. And yes, there were more than a few incidents of terrorism and assassination. Some called it a new Dark Age.


Indeed, it was during this time that observers began to notice that Larry Page, by now in his 70s, didn’t seem to have aged a bit in the previous three decades; it was thought that Google Ventures and Calico had worked wonders for him. Nobody could accuse Page of having done anything illegal, but nevertheless, the green-eyed backlash against him was fierce. And so, one day in the year 2049, Page just disappeared. That is, he was gone, in the technological equivalent of the Rapture. For a while, some thought that he might have gone seasteading, but it soon became apparent that Page was too smart for that pirate-attracting approach. Today we know that he is in space, having lifted off the earth on one of Elon Musk’s rockets.


So Page has been living at that undisclosed celestial location, somewhere in this solar system, for the past 66 years. And we know that there are other bold spirits who might have joined him, because they, too, haven’t been seen here on earth in a while.


As noted, from the point of view of human flourishing, it would be nice if Page were to return from his John Galt-ish exile. But this world doesn’t seem to be ready, yet, for that. And so Page and unknown others are creating their own new world, on their own terms, out there, somewhere.

From their aerie in space, they beckon us—some would say, torment us—with their realized vision of longer and better life.