On Larry Page, dreaming big, and anonymous health care “big data”

Larry Page appeared at the TED 30th Anniversary conference in Vancouver, speaking on stage with Charlie Rose (part of the interview is above, and you can find a deeper transcript here). There are about 127 different headlines you could go with off this interview, because he talked about a wide variety of topics ranging from covering 2/3 of the Earth with balloons in order to provide Internet to NSA/Snowden stuff to health care data to robotics. Automated cars came up too. (Don’t they always?) There are numerous interesting parts, but here’s two buckets I’d go with.

1. The value of big ideas: How many jobs have you had or people you’ve interacted with who respond to a new idea/concept by saying “That’s crazy!” or “Budgets are tight, we can’t do that!” I know a ton of people like that. Now, let’s not sugarcoat it: Google has a lot of money. A lot. They generate tens of billions of dollars per year from search advertising, and not every company has tens of billions of dollars to play with, so comparing Larry Page’s “moonshots” with, say, a mid-size client-facing firm in Omaha … well, that’s a fool’s errand, for sure. But there is a lesson in how Page speaks and operates with regard to Google. Consider this one line:

“Most businesses fail because they miss the future,” he said.

That’s true. Think of classic business school-type case studies like Blockbuster, or Kodak, or even what’s happening with “big box stores” right now. Businesses fail because they miss the future, and the future is often connected to an idea that seems utterly insane at the present. For example, if you had told someone in 1992 about Facebook, they might have told you “That’s crazy. No one would use something like that.” 12 years later, it was founded; 20 years later, it was among the biggest things on the planet. You shouldn’t be afraid of big ideas just because they might cost money or cost human capital resources (people’s time away from other projects). In fact, if you want to seriously work on engagement, investing people in big ideas — say, transformational work as opposed to transactional type work — could be one strategy. Is this doable everywhere? No. But can you move a few people onto big ideas in their down time, or even make it their focus one day a week? Sure. Google is literally talking about floating balloons all over the planet. How many middle managers would call that -ish crazy?

2. The health care situation: There are two fundamental wrecks in American society, and sadly, they are (a) education and (b) health care. They’re both good in some spots, but broadly speaking, they have a long way to go. (If you disagree with this, I apologize — and I mean simply within the context of the U.S., as in not compared to a third-world country.) Larry Page talked about an idea to make health care data public. Essentially, you’d make the data anonymous, but make it available in useful capacity to doctors. If you do it right, you could save hundreds of thousands of lives, it could be argued. (Same argument could be made about the potential implications of Watson, I guess.) Harvard University has made similar arguments about health data being made public. Flip side: can you really maintain privacy?

That’s where it gets interesting, and fundamental, and philosophical, all at once: privacy is obviously a huge issue in the U.S. (and world) right now, so anything that even remotely smells like a violation of it will raise red flags for many. But what if we could do something like this, and it could benefit 500K people a year in some form or fashion? What if your loved ones had 5-10 more years because your data was anonymously entered into something doctors could search for patterns and contexts? That seems like a legit trade-off, no? In my mind, it is. But I can see both sides too.

Essentially, it seems like the future of health care comes down to the central question of “privacy” vs. “open records.” It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out; I personally think involving Google is a good thing, although I know some are weary about how much they really know about us, etc.

Ted Bauer