Google doesn't just want to develop cars that can drive themselves or use balloons to bring more people online. The search leader also wants to become the next big thing in medicine.
At Google's secretive moonshot Google X laboratory in Mountain View, Calif., The Atlantic got a glimpse of what Google's life sciences division is working on: a pair of arms made from synthetic skin mixed with real human skin that can help people monitor the presence of cancer cells in their system. The goal of the project and of the bigger life sciences division is to allow people to constantly monitor their health and quickly prevent the onset of health problems.
"The central thesis of what we're trying to do at Google Life Sciences is that we're trying to change medicine from being episodic and reactive, like I go to the doctor and my arm hurts, to proactive and preventative," says [video] Andrew Conrad, head of Google X's life sciences division.
For the synthetic arms to work, the user has to pop a pill containing thousands upon thousands of nanoparticles that are decorated on the surface with markers that attach to cancer cells. Once these nanoparticles find cancerous cells, they bind to these cells to literally light them up. These lighted combinations of nanoparticles and cancer cells then travel to the blood vessels in the arm and are collected under a wearable wrist device that can detect what kind of cancer cells these are.
The goal for Google X is to illuminate these cancer cells so that people can see them through the skin, thus it is using the pair of practice arms that have real human skin and mimic real skin characteristics such as autofluorescence, or the skin's natural ability to emit light.
In the future, people won't be needing the practice arms to see the cancer cells light up. However, Google X has plenty of work to do before it even reaches that kind of future. One major consideration for the lab is how its cancer-detecting system will be able to account for people with different ethnicities, skin tones and skin thickness.
"It's important for us to understand how the perception of these nanoparticles perform with people with very different characteristics," Conrad says.
Asked how long it will take before Google can develop something that can actually be used by consumers, Conrad doesn't have a definite answer, though he believes it will eventually happen.
"We're making good progress but the journey is long and hard," he admits. "I think we will get there and I hope it's years, not decades."
Obviously, a pill that contains several little particles that can track what's inside the human body and report it to a wearable device that can possibly connect to the Internet and, therefore, be accessed by Google and possibly its partners and the government is not going to sit well with people who are growing more and more concerned about their privacy.
Conrad does not attempt to provide assurance about privacy protections that will be embedded into the system, but he says the benefits of monitoring one's health outweigh privacy concerns.
"It's way weirder to have cancer cells floating through your body that are constantly trying to kill you," he says.