A FORMER vice-president, Al Gore, and one of the co-founders of Google, Larry Page, were already seated on the stage of Google’s “Zeitgeist” conference, an exclusive gathering for the intelligentsia, but the third chair was still empty. After a few minutes, Sergey Brin, the other founder of the world’s biggest internet company, joined them. Messrs Gore and Page gave him the floor, because Mr Brin had something important to say.
The global “thought leaders” in the audience at Zeitgeist had just spent two days talking about solving the world’s biggest problems by applying the Enlightenment values of reason and science that Google espouses. But Mr Brin, usually a very private man, opened with an uncharacteristically personal story. He talked about his mother, Eugenia, a Jewish-Russian immigrant and a former computer engineer at NASA, and her suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
The reason was that Mr Brin had recently discovered that he has inherited from his mother a mutation of a gene called LRRK2 that appears to predispose carriers to familial Parkinson’s. Thus Mr Brin, at the age of 35, had found out that he had a high statistical chance—between 20% and 80%, depending on the study—of developing Parkinson’s himself. To the surprise of many in the audience, this did not seem to bother him.
One member of the audience asked whether ignorance was not bliss in such matters, since knowledge would only lead to a life spent worrying. Mr Brin looked genuinely puzzled. First of all, he began, who’s talking about worrying? His discovery was merely a statistical insight, and Mr Brin, a wizard at mathematics, uses statistics without fretting about them. More importantly, he went on, his knowledge means that he can now take measures to ward off the disease. Exercise helps, as does smoking, apparently—although Mr Brin, to laughter, denied taking up cigarettes (a vice of his father’s).
But Mr Brin was making a much bigger point. Isn’t knowledge always good, and certainly always better than ignorance? Armed with it, Mr Brin is now in a position to fund and encourage research into this gene in particular, and Parkinson’s in general. He is likely to contact other bearers of the gene. In effect, Mr Brin regards his mutation of LRRK2 as a bug in his personal code, and thus as no different from the bugs in computer code that Google’s engineers fix every day. By helping himself, he can therefore help others as well. He considers himself lucky.
The moment in some ways sums up Mr Brin’s approach to life. Like Mr Page, he has a vision, as Google’s motto puts it, of making all the world’s information “universally accessible and useful”. Very soon after the two cooked up their new engine for web searches, in the late 1990s at Stanford University, they began thinking about information that is today beyond the web. Their vast project to digitise books has been the most controversial so far, prompting a lawsuit from a group of publishers in 2005 that was resolved in October. But Messrs Brin and Page have always taken a special interest in the sort of information that most people hold dearest: that about their health.
Mr Brin’s faith in the transformative power of knowledge also has personal roots. He was born in the Soviet Union, an opaque society and one often hostile to his Jewish parents. His father, Michael, wanted to be an astronomer, but Russia’s Communists barred Jews from the physics and astronomy departments at universities. So Michael Brin became a mathematician, as his father had been. This too was difficult for Jews, who had to take special, more difficult entrance exams. Both Michael and Eugenia passed nonetheless.
But it was clear that they had to get out to lead fulfilling lives. They applied for an exit visa in 1978. Michael Brin was fired for it, and his wife resigned. Fortunately, they received their visas, and in 1979 emigrated to America. Sergey was six at the time. He went to a Montessori school and learnt English, though he retains a hint of a Russian accent to this day. Language did not come naturally to him. Maths did. So Sergey followed his father and grandfather into mathematics, adding computer science at the University of Maryland, and then went to Stanford to get his PhD. Silicon Valley, with its casual dress, sunshine, optimism and curiosity was an instant fit.
At an orientation for new students he met Larry Page, the son of computer scientists and also of Jewish background. They instantly annoyed each other. “We’re both kind of obnoxious,” Mr Brin once said—as ever, half in jest, half serious. They decided to disagree on every subject that came up in conversation, and in the process discovered that being together felt just like home for both of them. They became intellectual soul-mates and close friends.
Mr Brin was interested in data mining, and Mr Page in extending the concept of inferring the importance of a research paper from its citations in other papers. Cramming their dormitory room full of cheap computers, they applied this method to web pages and found that they had hit upon a superior way to build a search engine. Their project grew quickly enough to cause problems for Stanford’s computing infrastructure. With a legendary nudge—from Andy Bechtolsheim, a prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor who wrote a $100,000 cheque to something called Google Inc—Messrs Page and Brin established a firm by that name.
Suspending their PhD programmes with Stanford’s blessing, the two became entrepreneurs of a typical Silicon Valley start-up. They even worked out of a garage for a time, as Valley lore seems to require. One advantage of this particular garage was that its owner, an early Google employee, had a sister, Anne Wojcicki, who got along well with Mr Brin and has since become his wife. Ms Wojcicki, moreover, had an interest in health information, and began talking to Mr Brin about ways to improve access to it.
Google began its astonishing rise. On the advice of their investors, the founders hired Eric Schmidt, a technology veteran, as chief executive, to provide “adult supervision”. Mr Schmidt’s role was to reassure Wall Street types that Google was responsibly run, in preparation for a stockmarket listing. As Google filed its papers, the world discovered that Google had added to its breakthrough in search technology a fantastically lucrative revenue model: text ads, related to the keywords of web searchers, that charge an advertiser only when a consumer actually clicks and thereby expresses an interest.
“Solving big problems is easier than solving little problems,” Mr Page likes to say.
As Google’s share price went up, Messrs Brin and Page became multi-billionaires. Wealth has its effects, and stories began leaking out. There was, for instance, the Boeing 767 that Messrs Page, Brin and Schmidt began sharing and that Mr Brin was eager to turn into a “party plane” with beds sufficiently large for comfortable “mile-high club” membership.
Yet their indulgences tend to share three less decadent features. First, they enjoy being just plain goofy. During their rare meetings with the press, Mr Schmidt will typically talk the most but say least, rattling off official company positions until the journalists succumb to exhaustion. Messrs Page and Brin, meanwhile, will sit next to him and exchange the odd knowing look, then add the occasional short, inappropriate and mildly embarrassing—but often hyper-perceptive—aside that livens things up and forces Mr Schmidt to backpedal for a few minutes.
Second, they are drawn to pranks and diversions that are educational—and ideally outrageous. They used to be regulars at Burning Man, a festival in the Nevada desert where oddballs display innovative art and mechanical creations. And Mr Brin has invested $5m—in effect, the price of his ticket—in a company based in Virginia that arranges trips for private individuals to the International Space Station on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Third, Messrs Brin and Page appear to be trying to do good. They have been mocked endlessly, and understandably, for their corporate motto (“Don’t be evil”), but probably mean it. When they start to look evil, it is usually out of naivety. Google went into China agreeing to censor its search results to appease the Communists, but did so in the belief that a lot more information, with omissions clearly labelled, makes the Chinese better off. Mr Brin certainly had the Russia of his youth in mind, but agonised over the decision.
Despite the best intentions of Google’s founders, privacy advocates worry that it knows a dangerous amount about its users, which might be released inadvertently if something goes wrong. And there is growing concern about Google’s dominance of the internet-advertising market.
But Messrs Page and Brin have other things on their minds. “Solving big problems is easier than solving little problems,” Mr Page likes to say, and both preach a “healthy disregard for the impossible”. They hope, for instance, to help solve the world’s energy and climate problems via google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm. Health is another big problem. Mr Page, Mr Brin and his wife, Ms Wojcicki, have brainstormed with people such as Craig Venter, a biologist who helped map the human genome. Mr Brin instinctively regards genetics as a database and computing problem. So does his wife: she co-founded, with Linda Avey, a firm called 23andMe that lets people analyse and compare their genomes (made up of 23 pairs of chromosomes).
The relationship between Google and tiny 23andMe has on occasion raised eyebrows. Google is an investor, although Mr Brin has recused himself from decisions about it. But Mr Brin and Ms Wojcicki are quite the marketing pair. When the global political and economic elite gathered at Davos, a big draw was 23andMe’s “spit party” where the rich and famous salivated into tubes to provide DNA samples. A cynical view of Mr Brin’s Zeitgeist announcement is that it was just a marketing stunt. Ms Wojcicki and Ms Avey were in the room as he spoke.
More likely, Mr Brin and his wife have genuine faith in the value of genetic knowledge for its own sake. They get their kicks by comparing whether they share the gene that makes urine stink after eating asparagus, or the one that determines whether earwax is mealy or oily. But they do ultimately regard it as code. And code, as Messrs Brin and Page often say, benefits from many eyeballs, which is why Google typically uses and releases open-source software, such as its web browser and mobile-phone operating system. (It does, however, keep its search and advertising algorithms private.)
Mr Brin was therefore setting a public example with his announcement at Zeitgeist. Let everybody discover their genomes, through 23andMe or another firm, and then feel comfortable sharing the code so that others—patients, doctors, researchers—can get to work crunching the data and looking for the bugs. Throughout history, the prospect of greater access to knowledge has frightened some people. But those are not the people that Sergey Brin mixes with in Silicon Valley.