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Siri creator Dag Kittlaus went in for a simple exam and found a pancreatic tumor

Death (and life) comes for the entrepreneur and Silicon Valley.

TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2016 - Day 1
Dag Kittlaus in a demo in May of 2016
Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch

There are close calls and then there are close calls.

For Siri creator Dag Kittlaus, it was most definitely the latter.

The longtime entrepreneur, who sold his famous speech recognition company to Apple in 2010, was dubious about getting an executive exam at the University of Colorado hospital. He was in great shape, having done regular triathlons and always eating healthy. But his wife had urged him to go and so he did in November.

While getting a scan of his heart, though, the doctors inadvertently discovered a lemon-sized tumor on his pancreas, ironically of the exact same rare type that Apple founder Steve Jobs had.

Called pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer, it is luckily one of the less aggressive kinds of tumors, but only if caught early. Often, it is not, since there are no real symptoms until the person who has one gets jaundice, after which it can be too late.

Kittlaus had surgery that took half his pancreas, as well as his spleen and gall bladder, and where one of the nurses was, ironically, named Siri. He just returned to work this week at Samsung, where he runs Viv, the artificial intelligence virtual assistant system that the Korean consumer electronics giant bought in October.

“It was the luckiest set of circumstances, because without that exam it most certainly would have spread and I would be dead,” said Kittlaus in an interview this week. “The prognosis is very good and I am incredibly lucky, but the biggest thing I learned is that tomorrow is promised to no one.”

Indeed not, no one.

And that is the penny that most definitely has been dropping in Silicon Valley over and over since the death of Jobs just over five years ago from that same kind of cancer, followed by the also untimely deaths of well known and beloved entrepreneurs like Dave Goldberg in 2015 and Blake Krikorian in 2016.

While all these tragic deaths are certainly seen as rare and unusual circumstances here, the realization of mortality has been one that many in tech are facing more and more, often in ways that also go beyond the corporeal.

Is this a good thing? It is, I guess, a thing, another part of the maturing of a place that has long seen itself as a perpetual Neverland of endless possibilities. It is also the reality of an industry that is now increasingly facing up to the fact that there are unwelcome consequences and unexpected outcomes of their past actions.

You can feel it everywhere these days, especially after this most bruising of elections that has brought out the very worst in all of us, making everyone feel on edge at all times, ready to argue incessantly about everything. This all then gets jacked up on the jet fuel of social media, which has never met a controversial issue or basic disagreement that it could not turn utterly and completely toxic.

“We built it, so it’s kind of our fault,” said one entrepreneur to me in the tone of a joke that is not really that funny because it’s kind of true. We did. It is.

In fact, in almost every conversation I have these days among the technorati, there is a vague sense of dread, about even the most promising of companies. Will Uber and Airbnb go public with a bang? (Hmm.) Can Apple stay innovative? (The next phone will tell.) What does it mean that Google is shutting down some of its more high-flying endeavors? (Even the crazies aren’t so crazy anymore.) Will there be a reckoning for the juggernaut that is Facebook? (Inevitable, right?) Is virtual reality ever going to be a big thing? (Yes, explains some panel of geeks who are frequently wrong but never in doubt; Nonono, you say quietly to yourself.)

It does not help that some of its former stars have turned out to be rapidly falling ones. Yahoo is over. No one knows what to do with Twitter. Zynga is what now? Each case is different and special, many will argue, a series of leadership fuck-ups that are unique, even if they all seem the same (including how everyone at the top got rich, no matter the outcome).

There are still bits of new, green shoots though, such as around the fast-growing technologies of artificial intelligence and self-driving cars. But even those have hooky thorns attached, with potential impact on jobs that could strike at the heart of this suddenly fragile social contract much harder than we can predict now. (Can universal basic income save us, the techies ponder a lot and very loudly these days? No. It. Cannot.)

Trump Supporter And Entrepreneur Peter Thiel Discusses Presidential Elections
Next up: Peter Thiel will explain parabiosis to you.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

It should be ironic, but it is not in these surreal times, that the most intriguing ideas come from the crown prince of the moment, investor Peter Thiel. He’s vaulted to top status in mindshare at least, due to his early and prescient support of President-elect Donald Trump.

In what is perhaps the most riveting and truly bizarre of interviews yesterday with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Thiel talked about a lot of things and had some truly great lines like: “A Twitter war is not a real war.”

But the most interesting part was his long riff on life-extension, a peculiar focus of his for some time that suddenly seems a whole lot less peculiar. Along with human growth hormones and cryogenics, he’s focused on parabiosis, “a blood regeneration trial in which people over 35 would receive transfusions from people aged 16 to 25 — an experiment that Anne Rice gave a thumbs up to.” Declaring himself not a vampire, he is nonetheless “sifting through hundreds of proposals he has received from parabiosis ventures.”


“We have to be more experimental in all our medical procedures,” he says. “We should not go gently into that good night.”

I ask why everyone in Silicon Valley seemed so obsessed with immortality.

“Why is everyone else so indifferent about their mortality?” he replies.

No longer, as Silicon Valley has finally caught up to Thiel.

Of course, Steve Jobs was there first, stressing the need to look at the end to make the present better, in one of his most famous and memorable speeches at Stanford University in 2005, in which he addressed his own pancreatic cancer, then in remission. “Death is very likely the single best invention of life,” he said. “It is life's change agent.”

It is perhaps no surprise that Jobs did some of his most creative and impactful work after that, though he was to die too young only six years later.

Kittlaus said the very idea of pondering such big thoughts or being inspired by the end was not something he or entrepreneurs like him ever had paid much attention to until now.

“It’s certainly been hard to have balance when you are hard-charging into the future all the time,” said Kittlaus, 49, who has an enviable record of accomplishment. “It takes its toll.”

Still, Kittlaus is one of the lucky ones who will live to fight another day. The difference now? He knows it.

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