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Google to feed machines with evidence of human physical weaknesses – and that's a good thing

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Google's X laboratory is working with a team of biologists and geneticists to analyze human frailties using the web giant's computing might.

The project, called the Baseline Study, is recruiting 175 volunteers to contribute tissue samples, blood, sweat, tears, and urine for processing. The test results will then be fed into Google's servers, which will crunch it looking for genetic biomarkers that indicate predisposition to illnesses such as diabetes or heart attacks.

Google X has hired between 70 and 100 medical specialists in a team headed by molecular biologist Andrew Conrad to go through the data and expand the study. Volunteers at the medical schools of Duke University and Stanford University will take part in a longer study involving more samples and the use of Google X's glucose-detecting contact lenses.

The goal of all of this is to identify what makes a healthy human and provide those who are susceptible to certain conditions with a warning system so that they can adapt their habits to head off the risk of illness.

"With any complex system, the notion has always been there to proactively address problems," Dr Conrad told The Wall Street Journal. "That's not revolutionary. 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."

At this early stage all the data used will be anonymized to allay privacy concerns, but that may not last. Testing like this will be a boon to insurance companies looking to save on payouts, as well as doctors, according to team member Dr Sam Gambhir, who insisted safeguards are in place and data won't be shared with third parties.

"That's certainly an issue that's been discussed," said Dr Gambhir. "Google will not be allowed free rein to do whatever it wants with this data."

While there's no immediate plans to build a business about this sort of genetic investigation, it's an area close to the heart of many at Google, particularly Sergey Brin. The Google cofounder's now-estranged wife runs genetic testing firm 23andMe, which has diagnosed Brin as having a predisposition to Parkinson's disease.

There's no timescale for the findings to be released or for diagnostic devices to be made available to the public. Instead Conrad's team say he's playing the long game.

"He gets that this is not a software project that will be done in one or two years," Dr Gambhir said. "We used to talk about curing cancer and doing this in a few years. We've learned to not say those things anymore." ®

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