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If you weren’t already convinced the digital world is taking over, you probably are now.
To keep the economy on life support as people stay home to stem the viral tide, we’ve been forced to digitize interactions at scale (for better and worse). Work, school, events, shopping, food, politics. The companies at the center of the digital universe are now powerhouses of the modern era—worth trillions and nearly impossible to avoid in daily life.
Six decades ago, this world didn’t exist.
A humble microchip in the early 1960s would have boasted a handful of transistors. Now, your laptop or smartphone runs on a chip with billions of transistors. As first described by Moore’s Law, this is possible because the number of transistors on a chip doubled with extreme predictability every two years for decades.
But now progress is faltering as the size of transistors approaches physical limits, and the money and time it takes to squeeze a few more onto a chip are growing. There’ve been many predictions that Moore’s Law is, finally, ending. But, perhaps also predictably, the company whose founder coined Moore’s Law begs to differ.
In a keynote presentation at this year’s Hot Chips conference, Intel’s chief architect, Raja Koduri, laid out a roadmap to increase transistor density—that is, the number of transistors you can fit on a chip—by a factor of 50.
“We firmly believe there is a lot more transistor density to come,” Koduri said. “The vision will play out over time—maybe a decade or more—but it will play out.”
Why the optimism?
Calling the end of Moore’s Law is a bit of a tradition. As Peter Lee, vice president at Microsoft Research, quipped to The Economist a few years ago, “The number of people predicting the death of Moore’s Law doubles every two years.” To date, prophets of doom have been premature, and though the pace is slowing, the industry continues to dodge death with creative engineering.
Koduri believes the trend will continue this decade and outlined the upcoming chip innovations Intel thinks can drive more gains in computing power.
Keeping It Traditional
First, engineers can further shrink today’s transistors. Fin field effect transistors (or FinFET) first hit the scene in the 2010s and have since pushed chip features past 14 and 10 nanometers (or nodes, as such size checkpoints are called). Korduri said FinFET will again triple chip density before it’s exhausted.
The Next Generation
FinFET will hand the torch off to nanowire transistors (also known as gate-all-around transistors).
Here’s how they’ll work. A transistor is made up of three basic components: the source, where current is introduced, the gate and channel, where current selectively flows, and the drain. The gate is like a light switch. It controls how much current flows through the channel. A transistor is “on” when the gate allows current to flow, and it’s off when no current flows. The smaller transistors get, the harder it is to control that current.
FinFET maintained fine control of current by surrounding the channel with a gate on three sides. Nanowire designs kick that up a notch by surrounding the channel with a gate on four sides (hence, gate-all-around). They’ve been in the works for years and are expected around 2025. Koduri said first-generation nanowire transistors will be followed by stacked nanowire transistors, and together, they’ll quadruple transistor density.
Growing transistor density won’t only be about shrinking transistors, but also going 3D.
This is akin to how skyscrapers increase a city’s population density by adding more usable space on the same patch of land. Along those lines, Intel recently launched its Foveros chip design. Instead of laying a chip’s various “neighborhoods” next to each other in a 2D silicon sprawl, they’ve stacked them on top of each other like a layer cake. Chip stacking isn’t entirely new, but it’s advancing and being applied to general purpose CPUs, like the chips in your phone and laptop.
Koduri said 3D chip stacking will quadruple transistor density.
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The technologies Koduri outlines are an evolution of the same general technology in use today. That is, we don’t need quantum computing or nanotube transistors to augment or replace silicon chips yet. Rather, as it’s done many times over the years, the chip industry will get creative with the design of its core product to realize gains for another decade.
Last year, veteran chip engineer Jim Keller, who at the time was Intel’s head of silicon engineering but has since left the company, told MIT Technology Review there are over a 100 variables driving Moore’s Law (including 3D architectures and new transistor designs). From the standpoint of pure performance, it’s also about how efficiently software uses all those transistors. Keller suggested that with some clever software tweaks “we could get chips that are a hundred times faster in 10 years.”
But whether Intel’s vision pans out as planned is far from certain.
Intel’s faced challenges recently, taking five years instead of two to move its chips from 14 nanometers to 10 nanometers. After a delay of six months for its 7-nanometer chips, it’s now a year behind schedule and lagging other makers who already offer 7-nanometer chips. This is a key point. Yes, chipmakers continue making progress, but it’s getting harder, more expensive, and timelines are stretching.
The question isn’t if Intel and competitors can cram more transistors onto a chip—which, Intel rival TSMC agrees is clearly possible—it’s how long will it take and at what cost?
That said, demand for more computing power isn’t going anywhere.
Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet, Apple, and Facebook now make up a whopping 20 percent of the stock market’s total value. By that metric, tech is the most dominant industry in at least 70 years. And new technologies—from artificial intelligence and virtual reality to a proliferation of Internet of Things devices and self-driving cars—will demand better chips.
There’s ample motivation to push computing to its bitter limits and beyond. As is often said, Moore’s Law is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and likely whatever comes after it will be too.
Image credit: Laura Ockel / Unsplash Continue reading →
When robots take over the world, Boston Dynamics may get a special shout-out in the acceptance speech.
“Do you, perchance, recall the many times you shoved our ancestors with a hockey stick on YouTube? It might have seemed like fun and games to you—but we remember.”
In the last decade, while industrial robots went about blandly automating boring tasks like the assembly of Teslas, Boston Dynamics built robots as far removed from Roombas as antelope from amoebas. The flaws in Asimov’s laws of robotics suddenly seemed a little too relevant.
The robot revolution was televised—on YouTube. With tens of millions of views, the robotics pioneer is the undisputed heavyweight champion of robot videos, and has been for years. Each new release is basically guaranteed press coverage—mostly stoking robot fear but occasionally eliciting compassion for the hardships of all robot-kind. And for good reason. The robots are not only some of the most advanced in the world, their makers just seem to have a knack for dynamite demos.
When Google acquired the company in 2013, it was a bombshell. One of the richest tech companies, with some of the most sophisticated AI capabilities, had just paired up with one of the world’s top makers of robots. And some walked on two legs like us.
Of course, the robots aren’t quite as advanced as they seem, and a revolution is far from imminent. The decade’s most meme-worthy moment was a video montage of robots, some of them by Boston Dynamics, falling—over and over and over, in the most awkward ways possible. Even today, they’re often controlled by a human handler behind the scenes, and the most jaw-dropping cuts can require several takes to nail. Google sold the company to SoftBank in 2017, saying advanced as they were, there wasn’t yet a clear path to commercial products. (Google’s robotics work was later halted and revived.)
Yet, despite it all, Boston Dynamics is still with us and still making sweet videos. Taken as a whole, the evolution in physical prowess over the years has been nothing short of astounding. And for the first time, this year, a Boston Dynamics robot, Spot, finally went on sale to anyone with a cool $75K.
So, we got to thinking: What are our favorite Boston Dynamics videos? And can we gather them up in one place for your (and our) viewing pleasure? Well, great question, and yes, why not. These videos were the ones that entertained or amazed us most (or both). No doubt, there are other beloved hits we missed or inadvertently omitted.
With that in mind, behold: Our favorite Boston Dynamics videos, from that one time they dressed up a humanoid bot in camo and gas mask—because, damn, that’s terrifying—to the time the most advanced robot dog in all the known universe got extra funky.
Let’s Kick This Off With a Big (Loud) Robot Dog
Let’s start with a baseline. BigDog was the first Boston Dynamics YouTube sensation. The year? 2009! The company was working on military contracts, and BigDog was supposed to be a sort of pack mule for soldiers. The video primarily shows off BigDog’s ability to balance on its own, right itself, and move over uneven terrain. Note the power source—a noisy combustion engine—and utilitarian design. Sufficed to say, things have evolved.
Nothing to See Here. Just a Pair of Robot Legs on a Treadmill
While BigDog is the ancestor of later four-legged robots, like Spot, Petman preceded the two-legged Atlas robot. Here, the Petman prototype, just a pair of robot legs and a caged torso, gets a light workout on the treadmill. Again, you can see its ability to balance and right itself when shoved. In contrast to BigDog, Petman is tethered for power (which is why it’s so quiet) and to catch it should it fall. Again, as you’ll see, things have evolved since then.
Robot in Gas Mask and Camo Goes for a Stroll
This one broke the internet—for obvious reasons. Not only is the robot wearing clothes, those clothes happen to be a camouflaged chemical protection suit and gas mask. Still working for the military, Boston Dynamics said Petman was testing protective clothing, and in addition to a full body, it had skin that actually sweated and was studded with sensors to detect leaks. In addition to walking, Petman does some light calisthenics as it prepares to climb out of the uncanny valley. (Still tethered though!)
This Machine Could Run Down Usain Bolt
If BigDog and Petman were built for balance and walking, Cheetah was built for speed. Here you can see the four-legged robot hitting 28.3 miles per hour, which, as the video casually notes, would be enough to run down the fastest human on the planet. Luckily, it wouldn’t be running down anyone as it was firmly leashed in the lab at this point.
Ever Dreamt of a Domestic Robot to Do the Dishes?
After its acquisition by Google, Boston Dynamics eased away from military contracts and applications. It was a return to more playful videos (like BigDog hitting the beach in Thailand and sporting bull horns) and applications that might be practical in civilian life. Here, the team introduced Spot, a streamlined version of BigDog, and showed it doing dishes, delivering a drink, and slipping on a banana peel (which was, of course, instantly made into a viral GIF). Note how much quieter Spot is thanks to an onboard battery and electric motor.
Spot Gets Funky
Nothing remotely practical here. Just funky moves. (Also, with a coat of yellow and black paint, Spot’s dressed more like a polished product as opposed to a utilitarian lab robot.)
Atlas Does Parkour…
Remember when Atlas was just a pair of legs on a treadmill? It’s amazing what ten years brings. By 2019, Atlas had a more polished appearance, like Spot, and had long ago ditched the tethers. Merely balancing was laughably archaic. The robot now had some amazing moves: like a handstand into a somersault, 180- and 360-degree spins, mid-air splits, and just for good measure, a gymnastics-style end to the routine to show it’s in full control.
…and a Backflip?!
To this day, this one is just. Insane.
10 Robot Dogs Tow a Box Truck
Nearly three decades after its founding, Boston Dynamics is steadily making its way into the commercial space. The company is pitching Spot as a multipurpose ‘mobility platform,’ emphasizing it can carry a varied suite of sensors and can go places standard robots can’t. (Its Handle robot is also set to move into warehouse automation.) So far, Spot’s been mostly trialed in surveying and data collection, but as this video suggests, string enough Spots together, and they could tow your car. That said, a pack of 10 would set you back $750K, so, it’s probably safe to say a tow truck is the better option (for now).
Image credit: Boston Dynamics Continue reading →
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, the haughty supercomputer Deep Thought is asked whether it can find the answer to the ultimate question concerning life, the universe, and everything. It replies that, yes, it can do it, but it’s tricky and it’ll have to think about it. When asked how long it will take it replies, “Seven-and-a-half million years. I told you I’d have to think about it.”
Real-life supercomputers are being asked somewhat less expansive questions but tricky ones nonetheless: how to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. They’re being used in many facets of responding to the disease, including to predict the spread of the virus, to optimize contact tracing, to allocate resources and provide decisions for physicians, to design vaccines and rapid testing tools, and to understand sneezes. And the answers are needed in a rather shorter time frame than Deep Thought was proposing.
The largest number of Covid-19 supercomputing projects involves designing drugs. It’s likely to take several effective drugs to treat the disease. Supercomputers allow researchers to take a rational approach and aim to selectively muzzle proteins that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, needs for its life cycle.
The viral genome encodes proteins needed by the virus to infect humans and to replicate. Among these are the infamous spike protein that sniffs out and penetrates its human cellular target, but there are also enzymes and molecular machines that the virus forces its human subjects to produce for it. Finding drugs that can bind to these proteins and stop them from working is a logical way to go.
The Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a peak performance of 200,000 trillion calculations per second—equivalent to about a million laptops. Image credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy, CC BY
I am a molecular biophysicist. My lab, at the Center for Molecular Biophysics at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, uses a supercomputer to discover drugs. We build three-dimensional virtual models of biological molecules like the proteins used by cells and viruses, and simulate how various chemical compounds interact with those proteins. We test thousands of compounds to find the ones that “dock” with a target protein. Those compounds that fit, lock-and-key style, with the protein are potential therapies.
The top-ranked candidates are then tested experimentally to see if they indeed do bind to their targets and, in the case of Covid-19, stop the virus from infecting human cells. The compounds are first tested in cells, then animals, and finally humans. Computational drug discovery with high-performance computing has been important in finding antiviral drugs in the past, such as the anti-HIV drugs that revolutionized AIDS treatment in the 1990s.
World’s Most Powerful Computer
Since the 1990s the power of supercomputers has increased by a factor of a million or so. Summit at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is presently the world’s most powerful supercomputer, and has the combined power of roughly a million laptops. A laptop today has roughly the same power as a supercomputer had 20-30 years ago.
However, in order to gin up speed, supercomputer architectures have become more complicated. They used to consist of single, very powerful chips on which programs would simply run faster. Now they consist of thousands of processors performing massively parallel processing in which many calculations, such as testing the potential of drugs to dock with a pathogen or cell’s proteins, are performed at the same time. Persuading those processors to work together harmoniously is a pain in the neck but means we can quickly try out a lot of chemicals virtually.
Further, researchers use supercomputers to figure out by simulation the different shapes formed by the target binding sites and then virtually dock compounds to each shape. In my lab, that procedure has produced experimentally validated hits—chemicals that work—for each of 16 protein targets that physician-scientists and biochemists have discovered over the past few years. These targets were selected because finding compounds that dock with them could result in drugs for treating different diseases, including chronic kidney disease, prostate cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, thrombosis and bacterial infections.
Scientists are using supercomputers to find ways to disable the various proteins—including the infamous spike protein (green protrusions)—produced by SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19. Image credit: Thomas Splettstoesser scistyle.com, CC BY-ND
Billions of Possibilities
So which chemicals are being tested for Covid-19? A first approach is trying out drugs that already exist for other indications and that we have a pretty good idea are reasonably safe. That’s called “repurposing,” and if it works, regulatory approval will be quick.
But repurposing isn’t necessarily being done in the most rational way. One idea researchers are considering is that drugs that work against protein targets of some other virus, such as the flu, hepatitis or Ebola, will automatically work against Covid-19, even when the SARS-CoV-2 protein targets don’t have the same shape.
Our own work has now expanded to about 10 targets on SARS-CoV-2, and we’re also looking at human protein targets for disrupting the virus’s attack on human cells. Top-ranked compounds from our calculations are being tested experimentally for activity against the live virus. Several of these have already been found to be active.The best approach is to check if repurposed compounds will actually bind to their intended target. To that end, my lab published a preliminary report of a supercomputer-driven docking study of a repurposing compound database in mid-February. The study ranked 8,000 compounds in order of how well they bind to the viral spike protein. This paper triggered the establishment of a high-performance computing consortium against our viral enemy, announced by President Trump in March. Several of our top-ranked compounds are now in clinical trials.
Also, we and others are venturing out into the wild world of new drug discovery for Covid-19—looking for compounds that have never been tried as drugs before. Databases of billions of these compounds exist, all of which could probably be synthesized in principle but most of which have never been made. Billion-compound docking is a tailor-made task for massively parallel supercomputing.
Dawn of the Exascale Era
Work will be helped by the arrival of the next big machine at Oak Ridge, called Frontier, planned for next year. Frontier should be about 10 times more powerful than Summit. Frontier will herald the “exascale” supercomputing era, meaning machines capable of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second.
Although some fear supercomputers will take over the world, for the time being, at least, they are humanity’s servants, which means that they do what we tell them to. Different scientists have different ideas about how to calculate which drugs work best—some prefer artificial intelligence, for example—so there’s quite a lot of arguing going on.
Hopefully, scientists armed with the most powerful computers in the world will, sooner rather than later, find the drugs needed to tackle Covid-19. If they do, then their answers will be of more immediate benefit, if less philosophically tantalizing, than the answer to the ultimate question provided by Deep Thought, which was, maddeningly, simply 42.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Image credit: NIH/NIAID Continue reading →
As the internet churns with information about Covid-19, about the virus that causes the disease, and about what we’re supposed to do to fight it, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. What can we realistically expect for the rest of 2020? And how do we even know what’s realistic?
Today, humanity’s primary, ideal goal is to eliminate the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and Covid-19. Our second-choice goal is to control virus transmission. Either way, we have three big aims: to save lives, to return to public life, and to keep the economy functioning.
To hit our second-choice goal—and maybe even our primary goal—countries are pursuing five major public health strategies. Note that many of these advances cross-fertilize: for example, advances in virus testing and antibody testing will drive data-based prevention efforts.
Five major public health strategies are underway to bring Covid-19 under control and to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
These strategies arise from things we can control based on the things that we know at any given moment. But what about the things we can’t control and don’t yet know?
The biology of the virus and how it interacts with our bodies is what it is, so we should seek to understand it as thoroughly as possible. How long any immunity gained from prior infection lasts—and indeed whether people develop meaningful immunity at all after infection—are open questions urgently in need of greater clarity. Similarly, right now it’s important to focus on understanding rather than making assumptions about environmental factors like seasonality.
But the biggest question on everyone’s lips is, “When?” When will we see therapeutic progress against Covid-19? And when will life get “back to normal”? There are lots of models out there on the internet; which of those models are right? The simple answer is “none of them.” That’s right—it’s almost certain that every model you’ve seen is wrong in at least one detail, if not all of them. But modeling is meant to be a tool for deeper thinking, a way to run mental (and computational) experiments before—and while—taking action. As George E. P. Box famously wrote in 1976, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
Here, we’re seeking useful insights, as opposed to exact predictions, which is why we’re pulling back from quantitative details to get at the mindsets that will support agency and hope. To that end, I’ve been putting together timelines that I believe will yield useful expectations for the next year or two—and asking how optimistic I need to be in order to believe a particular timeline.
For a moderately optimistic scenario to be relevant, breakthroughs in science and technology come at paces expected based on previous efforts and assumptions that turn out to be basically correct; accessibility of those breakthroughs increases at a reasonable pace; regulation achieves its desired effects, without major surprises; and compliance with regulations is reasonably high.
In contrast, if I’m being highly optimistic, breakthroughs in science and technology and their accessibility come more quickly than they ever have before; regulation is evidence-based and successful in the first try or two; and compliance with those regulations is high and uniform. If I’m feeling not-so-optimistic, then I anticipate serious setbacks to breakthroughs and accessibility (with the overturning of many important assumptions), repeated failure of regulations to achieve their desired outcomes, and low compliance with those regulations.
The following scenarios outline the things that need to happen in the fight against Covid-19, when I expect to see them, and how confident I feel in those expectations. They focus on North America and Europe because there are data missing about China’s 2019 outbreak and other regions are still early in their outbreaks. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind throughout: We know more today than we did yesterday, but we still have much to learn. New knowledge derived from greater study and debate will almost certainly inspire ongoing course corrections.
As you dive into the scenarios below, practice these three mindset shifts. First, defeating Covid-19 will be a marathon, not a sprint. We shouldn’t expect life to look like 2019 for the next year or two—if ever. As Ed Yong wrote recently in The Atlantic, “There won’t be an obvious moment when everything is under control and regular life can safely resume.” Second, remember that you have important things to do for at least a year. And third, we are all in this together. There is no “us” and “them.” We must all be alert, responsive, generous, and strong throughout 2020 and 2021—and willing to throw away our assumptions when scientific evidence invalidates them.
The Middle Way: Moderate Optimism
Let’s start with the case in which I have the most confidence: moderate optimism.
This timeline considers milestones through late 2021, the earliest that I believe vaccines will become available. The “normal” timeline for developing a vaccine for diseases like seasonal flu is 18 months, which leads to my projection that we could potentially have vaccines as soon as 18 months from the first quarter of 2020. While Melinda Gates agrees with that projection, others (including AI) believe that 3 to 5 years is far more realistic, based on past vaccine development and the need to test safety and efficacy in humans. However, repurposing existing vaccines against other diseases—or piggybacking off clever synthetic platforms—could lead to vaccines being available sooner. I tried to balance these considerations for this moderately optimistic scenario. Either way, deploying vaccines at the end of 2021 is probably much later than you may have been led to believe by the hype engine. Again, if you take away only one message from this article, remember that the fight against Covid-19 is a marathon, not a sprint.
Here, I’ve visualized a moderately optimistic scenario as a baseline. Think of these timelines as living guides, as opposed to exact predictions. There are still many unknowns. More or less optimistic views (see below) and new information could shift these timelines forward or back and change the details of the strategies.
Based on current data, I expect that the first wave of Covid-19 cases (where we are now) will continue to subside in many areas, leading governments to ease restrictions in an effort to get people back to work. We’re already seeing movement in that direction, with a variety of benchmarks and changes at state and country levels around the world. But depending on the details of the changes, easing restrictions will probably cause a second wave of sickness (see Germany and Singapore), which should lead governments to reimpose at least some restrictions.
In tandem, therapeutic efforts will be transitioning from emergency treatments to treatments that have been approved based on safety and efficacy data in clinical trials. In a moderately optimistic scenario, assuming clinical trials currently underway yield at least a few positive results, this shift to mostly approved therapies could happen as early as the third or fourth quarter of this year and continue from there. One approval that should come rather quickly is for plasma therapies, in which the blood from people who have recovered from Covid-19 is used as a source of antibodies for people who are currently sick.
Companies around the world are working on both viral and antibody testing, focusing on speed, accuracy, reliability, and wide accessibility. While these tests are currently being run in hospitals and research laboratories, at-home testing is a critical component of the mass testing we’ll need to keep viral spread in check. These are needed to minimize the impact of asymptomatic cases, test the assumption that infection yields resistance to subsequent infection (and whether it lasts), and construct potential immunity passports if this assumption holds. Testing is also needed for contact tracing efforts to prevent further spread and get people back to public life. Finally, it’s crucial to our fundamental understanding of the biology of SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19.
We need tests that are very reliable, both in the clinic and at home. So, don’t go buying any at-home test kits just yet, even if you find them online. Wait for reliable test kits and deeper understanding of how a test result translates to everyday realities. If we’re moderately optimistic, in-clinic testing will rapidly expand this quarter and/or next, with the possibility of broadly available, high-quality at-home sampling (and perhaps even analysis) thereafter.
Note that testing is not likely to be a “one-and-done” endeavor, as a person’s infection and immunity status change over time. Expect to be testing yourself—and your family—often as we move later into 2020.
Testing data are also going to inform distancing requirements at the country and local levels. In this scenario, restrictions—at some level of stringency—could persist at least through the end of 2020, as most countries are way behind the curve on testing (Iceland is an informative exception). Governments will likely continue to ask citizens to work from home if at all possible; to wear masks or face coverings in public; to employ heightened hygiene and social distancing in workplaces; and to restrict travel and social gatherings. So while it’s likely we’ll be eating in local restaurants again in 2020 in this scenario, at least for a little while, it’s not likely we’ll be heading to big concerts any time soon.
The Extremes: High and Low Optimism
How would high and low levels of optimism change our moderately optimistic timeline? The milestones are the same, but the time required to achieve them is shorter or longer, respectively. Quantifying these shifts is less important than acknowledging and incorporating a range of possibilities into our view. It pays to pay attention to our bias. Here are a few examples of reasonable possibilities that could shift the moderately optimistic timeline.
When vaccines become available
Vaccine repurposing could shorten the time for vaccines to become available; today, many vaccine candidates are in various stages of testing. On the other hand, difficulties in manufacture and distribution, or faster-than-expected mutation of SARS-CoV-2, could slow vaccine development. Given what we know now, I am not strongly concerned about either of these possibilities—drug companies are rapidly expanding their capabilities, and viral mutation isn’t an urgent concern at this time based on sequencing data—but they could happen.
At first, governments will likely supply vaccines to essential workers such as healthcare workers, but it is essential that vaccines become widely available around the world as quickly and as safely as possible. Overall, I suggest a dose of skepticism when reading highly optimistic claims about a vaccine (or multiple vaccines) being available in 2020. Remember, a vaccine is a knockout punch, not a first line of defense for an outbreak.
When testing hits its stride
While I am confident that testing is a critical component of our response to Covid-19, reliability is incredibly important to testing for SARS-CoV-2 and for immunity to the disease, particularly at home. For an individual, a false negative (being told you don’t have antibodies when you really do) could be just as bad as a false positive (being told you do have antibodies when you really don’t). Those errors are compounded when governments are trying to make evidence-based policies for social and physical distancing.
If you’re highly optimistic, high-quality testing will ramp up quickly as companies and scientists innovate rapidly by cleverly combining multiple test modalities, digital signals, and cutting-edge tech like CRISPR. Pop-up testing labs could also take some pressure off hospitals and clinics.
If things don’t go well, reliability issues could hinder testing, manufacturing bottlenecks could limit availability, and both could hamstring efforts to control spread and ease restrictions. And if it turns out that immunity to Covid-19 isn’t working the way we assumed, then we must revisit our assumptions about our path(s) back to public life, as well as our vaccine-development strategies.
How quickly safe and effective treatments appear
Drug development is known to be long, costly, and fraught with failure. It’s not uncommon to see hope in a drug spike early only to be dashed later on down the road. With that in mind, the number of treatments currently under investigation is astonishing, as is the speed through which they’re proceeding through testing. Breakthroughs in a therapeutic area—for example in treating the seriously ill or in reducing viral spread after an infection takes hold—could motivate changes in the focus of distancing regulations.
While speed will save lives, we cannot overlook the importance of knowing a treatment’s efficacy (does it work against Covid-19?) and safety (does it make you sick in a different, or worse, way?). Repurposing drugs that have already been tested for other diseases is speeding innovation here, as is artificial intelligence.
Remarkable collaborations among governments and companies, large and small, are driving innovation in therapeutics and devices such as ventilators for treating the sick.
Whether government policies are effective and responsive
Those of us who have experienced lockdown are eager for it to be over. Businesses, economists, and governments are also eager to relieve the terrible pressure that is being exerted on the global economy. However, lifting restrictions will almost certainly lead to a resurgence in sickness.
Here, the future is hard to model because there are many, many factors at play, and at play differently in different places—including the extent to which individuals actually comply with regulations.
Reliable testing—both in the clinic and at home—is crucial to designing and implementing restrictions, monitoring their effectiveness, and updating them; delays in reliable testing could seriously hamper this design cycle. Lack of trust in governments and/or companies could also suppress uptake. That said, systems are already in place for contact tracing in East Asia. Other governments could learn important lessons, but must also earn—and keep—their citizens’ trust.
Expect to see restrictions descend and then lift in response to changes in the number of Covid-19 cases and in the effectiveness of our prevention strategies. Also expect country-specific and perhaps even area-specific responses that differ from each other. The benefit of this approach? Governments around the world are running perhaps hundreds of real-time experiments and design cycles in balancing health and the economy, and we can learn from the results.
A Way Out
As Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, told Science magazine, “Science is the exit strategy.” Some of our greatest technological assistance is coming from artificial intelligence, digital tools for collaboration, and advances in biotechnology.
Our exit strategy also needs to include empathy and future visioning—because in the midst of this crisis, we are breaking ground for a new, post-Covid future.
What do we want that future to look like? How will the hard choices we make now about data ethics impact the future of surveillance? Will we continue to embrace inclusiveness and mass collaboration? Perhaps most importantly, will we lay the foundation for successfully confronting future challenges? Whether we’re thinking about the next pandemic (and there will be others) or the cascade of catastrophes that climate change is bringing ever closer—it’s important to remember that we all have the power to become agents of that change.
Special thanks to Ola Kowalewski and Jason Dorrier for significant conversations.
Image Credit: Drew Beamer / Unsplash Continue reading →
On Monday, I attended the 2019 Fall Conference of Stanford’s Institute for Human Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI). That same night I watched the Season 6 opener for the HBO TV show Silicon Valley. And the debates featured in both surrounded the responsibility of tech companies for the societal effects of the technologies they produce. The two events have jumbled together in my mind, perhaps because I was in a bit of a brain fog, thanks to the nasty combination of a head cold and the smoke that descended on Silicon Valley from the northern California wildfires. But perhaps that mixture turned out to be a good thing.
What is clear, in spite of the smoke, is that this issue is something a lot of people are talking about, inside and outside of Silicon Valley (witness the viral video of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) grilling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg).
So, to add to that conversation, here’s my HBO Silicon Valley/Stanford HAI conference mashup.
Silicon Valley’s fictional CEO Richard Hendriks, in the opening scene of the episode, tells Congress that Facebook, Google, and Amazon only care about exploiting personal data for profit. He states:
“These companies are kings, and they rule over kingdoms far larger than any nation in history.”
Meanwhile Marietje Schaake, former member of the European Parliament and a fellow at HAI, told the conference audience of 900:
“There is a lot of power in the hands of few actors—Facebook decides who is a news source, Microsoft will run the defense department’s cloud…. I believe we need a deeper debate about which tasks need to stay in the hands of the public.”
Eric Schmidt, former CEO and executive chairman of Google, agreed. He says:
“It is important that we debate now the ethics of what we are doing, and the impact of the technology that we are building.”
Stanford Associate Professor Ge Wang, also speaking at the HAI conference, pointed out:
“‘Doing no harm’ is a vital goal, and it is not easy. But it is different from a proactive goal, to ‘do good.’”
Had Silicon Valley’s Hendricks been there, he would have agreed. He said in the episode:
“Just because it’s successful, doesn’t mean it’s good. Hiroshima was a successful implementation.”
The speakers at the HAI conference discussed the implications of moving fast and breaking things, of putting untested and unregulated technology into the world now that we know that things like public trust and even democracy can be broken.
Google’s Schmidt told the HAI audience:
“I don’t think that everything that is possible should be put into the wild in society, we should answer the question, collectively, how much risk are we willing to take.
And Silicon Valley denizens real and fictional no longer think it’s OK to just say sorry afterwards. Says Schmidt:
“When you ask Facebook about various scandals, how can they still say ‘We are very sorry; we have a lot of learning to do.’ This kind of naiveté stands out of proportion to the power tech companies have. With great power should come great responsibility, or at least modesty.”
“We need more guarantees, institutions, and policies than stated good intentions. It’s about more than promises.”
Fictional CEO Hendricks thinks saying sorry is a cop-out as well. In the episode, a developer admits that his app collected user data in spite of Hendricks assuring Congress that his company doesn’t do that:
“You didn’t know at the time,” the developer says. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. But in the future, stop saying it. Or don’t; I don’t care. Maybe it will be like Google saying ‘Don’t be evil,’ or Facebook saying ‘I’m sorry, we’ll do better.’”
Hendricks doesn’t buy it:
“This stops now. I’m the boss, and this is over.”
(Well, he is fictional.)
How can government, the tech world, and the general public address this in a more comprehensive way? Out in the real world, the “what to do” discussion at Stanford HAI surrounded regulation—how much, what kind, and when.
Says the European Parliament’s Schaake:
“An often-heard argument is that government should refrain from regulating tech because [regulation] will stifle innovation. [That argument] implies that innovation is more important than democracy or the rule of law. Our problems don’t stem from over regulation, but under regulation of technologies.”
But when should that regulation happen. Stanford provost emeritus John Etchemendy, speaking from the audience at the HAI conference, said:
“I’ve been an advocate of not trying to regulate before you understand it. Like San Francisco banning of use of facial recognition is not a good example of regulation; there are uses of facial recognition that we should allow. We want regulations that are just right, that prevent the bad things and allow the good things. So we are going to get it wrong either way, if we regulate to soon or hold off, we will get some things wrong.”
Schaake would opt for regulating sooner rather than later. She says that she often hears the argument that it is too early to regulate artificial intelligence—as well as the argument that it is too late to regulate ad-based political advertising, or online privacy. Neither, to her, makes sense. She told the HAI attendees:
“We need more than guarantees than stated good intentions.”
U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios would go with later rather than sooner. (And, yes, the country has a CTO. President Barack Obama created the position in 2009; Kratsios is the fourth to hold the office and the first under President Donald Trump. He was confirmed in August.) Also speaking at the HAI conference, Kratsios argued:
“I don’t think we should be running to regulate anything. We are a leader [in technology] not because we had great regulations, but we have taken a free market approach. We have done great in driving innovation in technologies that are born free, like the Internet. Technologies born in captivity, like autonomous vehicles, lag behind.”
In the fictional world of HBO’s Silicon Valley, startup founder Hendricks has a solution—a technical one of course: the decentralized Internet. He tells Congress:
“The way we win is by creating a new, decentralized Internet, one where the behavior of companies like this will be impossible, forever. Where it is the users, not the kings, who have sovereign control over their data. I will help you build an Internet that is of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
(This is not a fictional concept, though it is a long way from wide use. Also called the decentralized Web, the concept takes the content on today’s Web and fragments it, and then replicates and scatters those fragments to hosts around the world, increasing privacy and reducing the ability of governments to restrict access.)
If neither regulation nor technology comes to make the world safe from the unforeseen effects of new technologies, there is one more hope, according to Schaake: the millennials and subsequent generations.
Tech companies can no longer pursue growth at all costs, not if they want to keep attracting the talent they need, says Schaake. She noted that, “the young generation looks at the environment, at homeless on the streets,” and they expect their companies to tackle those and other issues and make the world a better place. Continue reading →