Google's next plan: Collect medical data to create a detailed map of a healthy human being

The project is known as Baseline Study stands at the junction of privacy and medical discovery

Published July 25, 2014 10:14PM (EDT)

               (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
(AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Google already has vast troves of data -- from consumer habits, to Streetview maps, to music preferences, and of course an elaborate search engine -- and proven adept at not only storing and sifting through it, but putting that data to work.

This week the tech giant announced that its next data collecting effort is in a different realm: human health. The Wall Street Journal initially broke the story, and described it as Google's "most ambitious and difficult science project ever: a quest inside the human body."

The project is part of Google X -- the company's longer-term projects -- and is named Baseline Study. The study will anonymously collect molecular and genetic information from 175 people to paint a picture of a healthy human being -- and hope to eventually collect data from thousands. The Wall Street Journal reports:

"The early-stage project is run by Andrew Conrad, a 50-year-old molecular biologist who pioneered cheap, high-volume tests for HIV in blood-plasma donations.

"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.

"Other mass medical and genomics studies exist. But Baseline will amass a much larger and broader set of new data. The hope is that this will help researchers detect killers such as heart disease and cancer far earlier, pushing medicine more toward prevention rather than the treatment of illness."

The hope is that after sorting through enough data, Google's computing network can detect "biomarkers" or patters in human health. These "biomarkers" could help doctors with early detection of diseases, or help study other body functions.

The obvious concern is privacy. Using Google services is already an acknowledged, if not uneasy, tradeoff of product in exchange for user data. And health information -- arguably the most human of all data -- is being turned over to a giant corporate machine. And what if the data ends up outside of Google's hands? And into the hands of a future spouse? A future employer looking to discriminate based on health issues? An insurance company deciding not to cover you?

Picturing Big Pharma, with Big Insurance collaborating with Big Tech -- it has the makings of a science fiction movie.

However, the Verge reports that "Google has clarified the medical data it receives will be anonymous by the time it gets its hands on it, and specified that such information would not be shared with insurance firms."

The Wall Street Journal also spoke to a Stanford doctor Sam Gambhir, who has been working with Google on Baseline Study. Gambhir told the Wall Street Journal that privacy has been discussed. "Google will not be allowed free rein to do whatever it wants with this data," he said.

The health applications, and potential life-saving discoveries are the possible and exciting outcomes of such a project -- from detecting disease to understanding patterns of our bodies.

However, though the Wall Street Journal reports that project does not deliver a specific product, there are still many questions. Will health data in Baseline Study eventually be monetized? Will it be sold to pharmaceutical companies or hospitals? Do we care?

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email

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Data Google Healthcare Healthy Human Innovation Larry Page Privacy Tech