Pandemics Happen—AI and Machine Learning Can Provide the Cures

Near the end of the Middle Ages, at the beginning of the early Renaissance, an event occurred as significant as any geological boundary that signifies a great extinction event. The years between 1347 and 1353, a period known as the “Black Death” killed approximately half the population of Europe and could roughly be compared to the asteroid impact 66 million years ago known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary. While the rogue asteroid that impacted near the Yucatan Peninsula hurried the dominance of mammals while eliminating dinosaurs, the Black Death nearly wiped out human civilization. The plague came in three forms, Bubonic, Pneumonic, and Septicemic, but it was caused by a simple bacterium, known to the modern world as Yersinia Pestis.

Interestingly, this bacterium still exists and infects a dozen or so people yearly even in the U.S. The infections occur in such places as southwest Utah, where hiking trails have warning signs that the Bubonic Plague has been found in the local area with advice to avoid dead animals that you may encounter on your hike. A substantial but well-known and well-understood course of antibiotics usually proves sufficient to the task of arresting the disease when someone is unlucky enough to contract it. Yet less than 700 years ago, it nearly caused Armageddon.

What We've Learned

The difference-maker is the scientific knowledge that humanity has acquired between then and now.  Around 1352, the University of Paris (often known as La Sorbonne), which employed some of the best minds of the late Middle Ages, concluded that a primary cause of the “Great Pestilence” was infected air due mostly to astrological effects.

Now we know more. But how much more? Who would have conceived in December of 2019 that it would be possible for the world economy to be shut down by a virus? Or that the most prominent social norm would become “social distancing?" That the main social requirement throughout the world would be to accept the directive of social distancing somewhat blindly is frightening enough but there are deeper systemic problems that have paved this perilous path. Will future centuries view us in the same way as we view the leaders at the University of Paris in 1352?  

It takes a minimum of 18 months to develop vaccines and anti-viral drugs. The bureaucracy and the human trials, when combined with the discovery process which involves endless hours of iterative testing, should be the perfect target for the use of the modeling capability of machine learning and the inference capability coming from new AI algorithms.

However, there is an answer. In the same way that the Yersinia Pestis bacterium ushered in the age of science, which accompanied the Renaissance, so should SARS-CoV2, and its respective disease Covid-19, propel the world toward a change in how we approach disease in our time.

AI and Machine Learning

Twenty-first century computing can be the answer. AI and machine learning can be used for much more than recognizing a cat in the midst of a pack of dogs or helping sports gamblers gain an advantage in the next week's games.  AI and machine learning can be utilized to accelerate the recognition of the new germs—be they viruses or bacterium that exist among us—that we have yet to encounter in a significant manner.  Then that same technology can be used to accelerate the development of countermeasures such as vaccines, anti-viral drugs, antibiotics, and treatment protocols.

It takes a minimum of 18 months to develop vaccines and anti-viral drugs. The bureaucracy and the human trials, when combined with the discovery process which involves endless hours of iterative testing, should be the perfect target for the use of the modeling capability of machine learning and the inference capability coming from new AI algorithms. Since we are presently learning that 18 days is more than enough time to unravel a great percentage of the world’s economy, 18 months constitutes a true catastrophe regardless of the actual real effects of the disease itself.

What is Needed Now

We call for a modern Manhattan Project- or Moon landing-scale effort to bring together all the great minds and companies of the Six Cities of Silicon Valley (www.dbta.com/Editorial/News-Flashes/The-Six-Sister-Cities-of-Silicon-Valley-125972.aspx). Their mission should be to invent new uses of AI and machine learning that will use the incredible power of modern computing with Graphical Processing Units (GPUs) to solve this problem. That mission should be to discover the prevention of disease itself!

No one knows how bad the year will get. No one knows if historians of future centuries will deride 21st century society as we now view the figures of the mid-14th century. Those people were undoubtedly using every academic idea and scientific tool at their disposal to try and lessen the effect of the catastrophe they were immersed in. We have the ability and the tools to make sure that this type of event never again that brings the world economic system to the brink to collapse. Let’s create our generation's version of the “Moon landing” and get it done!



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