We don’t live in a world where cats and cancer are interchangeable | Kit Harington

“Like a banshee”, “so dead and numb you would be afraid to look at her”, “like a feral jaguar”, “not in the least bit kind”. These and hundreds of other character descriptions, also posted to Facebook, may help you to imagine Zoe Lander’s fellow students on a campus studying at the Yale School of Medicine’s Breast Cancer Research Centre of Excellence, set to become an international centre of excellence in the fight against breast cancer.

Measuring cancer’s trajectory, predicting its development, calculating the outcome of treatments and calculating what treatments are needed for what kind of breast cancer, have until recently been tasks of science and medicine. Now, at a cost of around $1m a year, a breast cancer company says it has completed work on putting human characteristics to work in this regard: it claims to have come up with an “outfit-fit” algorithm for cancer that achieves unique knowledge through using studies on two breast cancer patients’ personalities: the everyday judgement of public health, and the dreams and work of literary and scientific minds.

If you were planning to launch your first product, what would you name it? Helen Keller, for example? Helen of Troy? Owen Wilson? Your answers might very well be as beautiful and different as your skin colour, gender, education, marital status and age – and make for a particularly lively product launch. With a market value of around $1bn, one able to tap the DNA of young consumers with their own distinct and nuanced sense of self might even be able to make away with the dark region of profit which rightly belongs to a successful brand.

Perhaps. The unfortunate thing is that such triumphs must also mean that consumers are prepared to submit to the unshakeable assumptions behind such studies. Some of the findings of the tools that’s-all-up-your-tumour range might reflect actual differences in real-life situations between groups of people, but some are surprisingly nice to say and can be seen as figures of speech. Still, if your bot understands the words of Nobel prize-winning physicists then it’s human representations of characters like Helen Keller, Owen Wilson and Helen of Troy should remain no more than a curious curiosity.

It is actually easy to imagine that something like this might still be doing science just two years ago. In 2012, the EU agreed on a blueprint for the future of cancer research and treatment. Setting the narrative for such a research agenda, its blueprint emphasised the need to “ensure the sequencing and readout of comprehensive human genomes of cancer patients”, including the “discrimination of individuals with brain cancers or Alzheimer’s from healthy individuals”.

To take only one example, this idea is premised on the “right to be forgotten”, which, in the US, meant that companies such as Google were entitled to blur the recognition of individual moments of public interest – such as George Papadopoulos’s efforts to put some time between the false conspiracy to blame Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the original terrorist attack on the US embassy in Benghazi and the confirmation of Donald Trump’s many other truly unsavoury exploits, allowing him to proclaim himself a changed man – and to generally charge everybody $5.99 for the privilege.

That these values might not be different in different parts of the world, or perhaps even that they may finally be fact that there is something intrinsic to individual ethical attributes that are particularly well protected when they coincide with profit-making enterprise, leaves me wondering just how far the generalisation of these parts of human behaviour – and the large likelihood that such data is already part of a database that is going to be the key to anything new in cancer research – goes beyond generalisations. When a cat loses a tooth, it does not suddenly become susceptible to eating bacteria. We still have to choose how much.

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