Google X’s New Study, Baseline : The Portrait of a Perfect Human Body
Google’s semi-secret workshop is one of the most innovation oriented institutions in the world. The research facility takes on some of the most fundamental questions on transportation, communication and others. Then, it takes an alternative bottom-up effort to understand them. The facility worked on concepts like Teleportation, Space elevators, and it is also the birthplace of projects like Google Glass, Driverless car and the upcoming Project Loon. Now with Project Baseline, Google plans to understand how a perfectly healthy human should look like and what factors restricts humans from achieving it.
The study will collect anonymous genetic and molecular data beginning with 175 people. They will eventually accumulate data of thousand more individuals. The study is lead by Dr. Andrew Conrad, who is a molecular biologist. He is credited for the development of cheap, high-volume tests for HIV in blood-plasma donations. Dr. Conrad has set up a team of about 70-to-100 experts from fields including physiology, biochemistry, optics, imaging and molecular biology for the study.
The study is a reimagination of the workings of the human body and how diseases can be prevented. This will be a prevention-oriented study which will try to find ways to inhibit naturally occurring diseases like stomach and heart ailments.
The project will collect hundreds of different samples using a wide variety of new diagnostic tools instead of focusing on specific diseases. Then Google will use its massive computing power to find particular biological patterns, or “biomarkers,” buried in the information. The researchers hope to use these biomarkers to see if they can be helpful in detecting diseases at an earlier stage. Google wants data on parameters like contributors’ entire genomes, their parents’ genetic history. Apart from that, information on how they metabolize food, nutrients and drugs, how fast their hearts beat under stress and how chemical reactions change the behavior of their genes will also be assessed.
Google has massive computing infrastructure for processing the massive information that will be generated by this project. According to the research team, Baseline, like previous Google X projects will be a look into the unknown. This project can also run in correlation with President Obama’s BRAIN initiative which is one of the most intensive looks into the functioning of the human neurons.
Like other Google X moonshot projects, this project is not time bound. Google’s look into teleportation was seen as scientifically unachievable, whereas a look into a healthy human body will be practical and help some of the fundamental problems with healthcare. Google has also promised that it will not share the data with corporate interests, and this will be anonymous study.
There is of course series oversight as the study tries to peer into the human body at a molecular level. When the study kick starts, it will be monitored by institutional review boards comprising of medical professionals from Duke and Stanford University. The board will also keep a vigilant eye on how the information is being utilized.
This project basically is a massive pattern recognition exercise. It aims to understand in the most fundamental sense as to what makes us human and what makes us tick. Studies like this and the BRAIN initiative will certainly help us gaze into our self and figure out what separates and unites us. Health research should be a priority research and done by the government thereby democratizing the data. As they also involve massive costs; the BRAIN initiative will cost $300 Million a year for ten years; these projects should have public investment to prevent misuse of data for commercial purposes.
Google also deserves credit for envisioning this audacious study, for taking on the research in an open, transparent manner, unlike the healthcare industry which persists on closed patented knowledge. Google has always pushed for free knowledge and its most prominent success in this field has been the Android operating system. Also, they need to be appreciated for taking on resource intensive projects without compromising with their quarterly results. Google has shown that it is not hard for a giant corporation to not be evil.