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Google wants to define health using Big Data

| July 28, 2014

If you ask Google to define health right now, you’ll get back the following: “the state of being free from illness or injury.” This may seem both obvious and a bit vague. Crucially, it’s entirely dependent on our definitions of illness and injury; much as cold is simply the lack of heat, health is the absence of illness.

Google wants to change our perspective with their latest “moonshot” project out of Google X, the company’s high-risk high-reward research branch that has been working self-driving cars and the much-maligned Google Glass. This new effort, The Baseline Project, aims to leverage the company’s world-renowned information-processing power to gather and examine a smorgasbord of data from healthy people in the quest to compile a complete, accurate picture of a healthy human being. We only know health in relation to illness; Google wants to establish an objective baseline for health.

Google itself has yet to elaborate on the project, all we know so far comes from a single report last Friday from the Wall Street Journal’s Alistair Barr.

Baseline is still very much in the early stages, with a pilot program of 175 people getting underway this summer. The effort is headed by molecular biologist Andrew Conrad:

Dr. Conrad joined Google X—the company’s research arm—in March 2013, and he has built a team of about 70-to-100 experts from fields including physiology, biochemistry, optics, imaging and molecular biology.

In describing the goals of the Baseline Project, Conrad told the WSJ: “We are just asking the question: If we really wanted to be proactive, what would we need to know? You need to know what the fixed, well-running thing should look like.”

Conrad and his colleagues will be collecting an unprecedented breadth of data on their subjects. Most large-scale genomic analysis efforts — of which there are several — focus on sick people or certain diseases in part to make the data processing more manageable. Google is trying to take in the whole shebang.

According to the WSJ, the pilot study will gather urine, blood, saliva and tears; create create a repository of tissue samples from participants; sequence the genomes of participants and their parents; and even have participants wear Google’s special glucose-tracking contact lenses to monitor their blood sugar levels over time.

That’s a lot of information, and nearly every report has commented on the privacy implications, but Barr’s original reporting captures it well:

Google said the information from Baseline will be anonymous and its use will be limited to medical and health purposes. Data won’t be shared with insurance companies, the company added.

Still, the idea that Google would know the structure of thousands of people’s bodies—down to the molecules inside their cells—raises significant issues of privacy and fairness. In the future, this kind of data would be invaluable to insurers, who are always looking to reduce their risks. And more prosaic but chilling uses, such as prior to job interviews or marriage proposals, lurk in the background.

The whole project will be under strict institutional review. “Google will not be allowed free rein to do whatever it wants with this data,” Sam Ghambir, who chairs the Department of Radiology at Stanford and has worked with Conrad for over a year now, told the WSJ. (But, as Vanity Fair’s Kia Makarechi points out: “Given academia’s rubber-stamping of a recent mood experiment that Facebook conducted on its users, that may or may not be comforting.”)

The least obvious — and perhaps most important — point of concern comes courtesy of io9’s George Dvorsky. Is Google’s approach really the best way to go about defining health? Can we even achieve some sort of objective baseline of health?

On the surface, this project makes a lot of sense. When it comes to preventing the onset of certain diseases, it’s clear that we need to identify the causal biological ‘deviations.’

But it’s important that this research not be taken too far, particularly for socially-constructed diseases, which often take psychological form. Moreover, human health is a normative concept that moves along a dynamic baseline; what’s considered healthy today may not be considered as such tomorrow.

Kenrick Vezina is Gene-ius Editor for the Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science writer, educator, and naturalist based in the Greater Boston area.

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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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