30 posts tagged feature
"We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people."
- President John F. Kennedy, “Moon Speech”
Rice University, September 12th 1962
Much of the coverage of Calico, the Google-backed venture to extend human longevity, has focused, sometimes skeptically, on the end goal. People are asking: can anyone - even Google - really defeat aging?
That question misses the point.
Larry Page has referred to Calico as “moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology”, and that metaphor is no accident. The original moonshot did achieve its end goal. But, equally importantly, it triggered a wave of basic R&D that transformed the technology landscape.
The huge budgets ($25 billion, or well over $100 billion in today’s dollars) spent on the Apollo program in the 1960s had three complementary benefits beyond the direct achievement of landing a human on the moon:
- R&D Infrastructure. The Apollo program funded the construction of research facilities, such as the Johnson Space Center and the Center for Space Research at MIT, that are still in use 50 years later. The resources and disciplines developed during the Apollo program are still yielding important scientific discoveries.
- Spinoff Technologies. The Apollo program, and the space shuttle program that followed it, created a great many technologies that to this day impact our lives in myriad ways. Particularly notable are the huge advances in computing and telecommunication.
- Promoting Science. The Apollo program drove a public fascination with science that lasted a generation. It unabashedly placed technology on a pedestal, and promoted the causes of rational thinking and scientific discovery.
A biomedical “moonshot” program like Calico could drive similar benefits, albeit on a smaller scale, given the more modest budgets. Promoting basic R&D in biochemistry, robotics and other sciences may yield spinoff technologies that will benefit our lives and capture our imagination, regardless of whether it actually achieves a large increase in human longevity.
A “failure” of Calico may still be a huge success, and we should weight the merits of this new venture just as much by the supposedly ancillary benefits as by the progress towards the end goal.
Fittingly, the venture of extending life has this in common with life itself: the true purpose is not the destination but the journey.