The Democratization of Health Care: The Quest for Sustainability

Google has announced another moon-shot project: Calico -- setting a course to solve the riddles of aging and death. Whether Calico succeeds in its quest or not, it has ushered in a new era that may profoundly alter our political, social, and cultural priorities. Google and its competitors (including Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft) have already helped to reshape human interaction in the Information Age by creating a vast international communications network that has become essential to many of our daily activities. The Calico announcement marks the transition to a new, and even more transformative, age.

Google is now shining a light on an obscure aspect of human existence, helping us to think about human sustainability -- something difficult to imagine and seldom discussed. The Calico announcement heralds the dawn of an age in which the business community will turn its attention to sustainability.

We are heirs to a fatalistic tradition regarding the human predicament: Immortality is not possible (though many believe that some disembodied state of everlasting life is promised under certain conditions). Nevertheless human life thrives better in some circumstances than in others; certain environments are more dangerous or challenging for human life. Studies are already proliferating that document the impact of environment on well-being and life expectancy. We are paying more attention to determinants (such as water, air, buildings, foods, and medical care) of health and longevity, which leads us to the big question, where Google's quest will, no doubt, lead: Can the objective reality be managed to sustain human life for an unpredictable period of time?

I am not suggesting in any absolute sense that life, individually or in the aggregate, can be conserved to achieve immortality in all conditions and circumstances. Change is a constant, and it is not likely that we can freeze material realities to accommodate human existence. I am suggesting that we may discover and influence conditions whose equilibrium would allow the human lifespan to extend beyond predictable limits.

In the past, social systems have lacked the technical sophistication to sustain life beyond rudimentary levels, and there has been little practical speculation about what appears improbable. Our mastery of the objective reality today is well beyond the imagination of our predecessors, and our descendants will likely develop technologies beyond our imagination that will enhance their powers over the material world. We have reached a propitious moment to inquire whether life-extending equilibrium is achievable. Giving breath to this idea will provoke naysayers. Some will question the desirability of such a state, seeing some intrinsic value in death; others will continue to believe that there are absolute boundaries to human ingenuity that preclude sustainability. But Google's Calico quest has also set some imaginations afire. Those who embark on this quest may be on a fool's errand. Nevertheless, they have begun. If human sustainability is achieved, Google will be celebrated as an emancipator.

The idea is too fresh to offer specific recommendations about next steps, but what is important is that a global business leader has invited us all to think more freely about the possible. Many will not see the immediate value, but for a few brave entrepreneurs it will power creativity and innovation. For that freedom we all owe a debt of gratitude to Google.