Why COVID? Nature’s Code Cracking Machine Intelligence

Coronavirus covid-19

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 -also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19-isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. (Photo by: IMAGE POINT FR – LPN/BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


COVID-19 is a pandemic that never had to happen. To prevent another—or one even worse—we have to internalize a simple lesson about life on earth that we tend to forget. Nature, for all its beauty and wonder, is out to get us. We must use our intellect and technology to prepare, predict and act swiftly in the face of what is a continuing threat to our life and livelihood.

We live in a sea of viruses. They have been a part of life since the beginning. These tiniest of all life forms adapt to exploit every available ecological niche. We humans, now numbering in the many billions, packed into cities and traveling the globe in ever increasing numbers, provide a target rich opportunity. Viruses have adapted to our way of life, learned how to crack our defensive code, invade our cells, and take full advantage of our weaknesses. 

These microscopic organisms don’t just attack the human body; they attack all the systems we’ve built to sustain modern life, including our complex, interlinked economies. As our systems have evolved, so too have our viruses, producing the likes of the smallpox, 1918 flu, Polio and HIV/AIDS. Now, we have COVID-19, and if we aren’t careful, it will be here to stay.

The current era is the culmination of decades of rapid demographic, technological, and cultural change. What we call the twenty-first century is yet another environment in which viruses mutate, adapt and thrive.

A world of viruses

Think of viruses as nature’s own form of artificial intelligence, capable of something very like what we call machine learning. Everywhere in the world, at any given moment, trillions upon trillions of natural experiments are underway that, through random mutation, advance the survival of each virus. We should be so lucky someday to engineer a machine, a quantum computer or otherwise, that rivals the collective activity and productivity that is the natural property of viruses.

In the last hundred years alone, the human population has more than quadrupled in size. Many of us have flocked to the nearest urban centers, where we live and work in high density clusters. Beyond sheer numbers, our urban centers are home to cramped and unclean quarters, tantalizing targets for omnipresent viruses.

We are not defenseless. Our immune system has adapted to meet this constant barrage of microorganisms. The usual result is a standoff. We are host to billions of bacteria and viruses that do little harm. For example, each year nonlethal human coronaviruses attack us like clockwork, entering and exiting our bodies under the more recognizable guise of the common cold.

However multilayered and resilient our immune systems have become, they’re far from impenetrable. They’re also unpredictable. A hit and run virus like the one responsible for COVID, SARS-CoV-2, can trigger an immune response so potent it overwhelms the body completely. In some cases this overreaction, also known as a cytokine storm, does more damage than the virus itself—enough to be fatal.

That SARS-CoV-2 has sickened and killed so many isn’t purely a byproduct of biology. While global pandemics have threatened us at various points over the course of human history, each one is unique to its respective day and age. COVID-19 is no exception. This virus has not only successfully adapted to our bodily defenses, but also exploited flaws endemic to our twenty first century social, economic, and political systems.

Chinks in our armor

The first chink in our armor is simply how many of us there are—and how long we’re able to live. Life expectancy has reached new heights and shows no sign of dropping. Because our health systems haven’t evolved sufficiently to meet the needs of larger aging populations, older adults are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 and other viruses that prey on weaker or compromised immune systems.

The second is our unprecedented global mobility. Global travel has risen exponentially. More than a billion international tourist visits were logged worldwide in 2018, compared to just a quarter of a million in 1950. It’s not just people that are more mobile, but the goods, services, information flows, and other transactions that fuel the global economy. Technology has made it easier than ever to move and communicate across borders—a shift that unfortunately applies to viral transmission, too.

The third is social inequity. Some of us live in luxury, with high quality doctors and medicine at our beck and call, while some of us have huge underlying health conditions due to poverty. Cities inevitably incubate infection, but substandard living conditions exacerbate it—and viruses exploit the social determinants that shape our health and environments, like race and income, all too well. Already we know that COVID-19 disproportionately affects communities of color in the United States, and that existing disparities in rates of infection, recovery, and death will only grow.

Last but not least is political philosophy. As the wide range of national responses to COVID-19 has shown us, the rhetoric and behavior of our political leaders can significantly impact how their citizens react. If an administration errs on the side of skepticism, their followers might be deterred from adhering to even basic safety protocol. The same goes for an impatience to return to work, the endorsement of medicines not yet proven clinically safe, or an inability or unwillingness to exercise the degree of control necessary to curb infection’s spread. A political philosophy that overemphasizes individual freedom over collective responsibility may also have similar consequences.

Sometimes a virus exploits our weak spots too efficiently—to its own detriment. Malicious though a virus may seem, it is never in its best interest to kill its hosts. When they do, we fight back.

Modern medicine as a weapon

How do we fight an enemy we cannot see when so many of our failings as a society are conducive to its victory?

We have our intellect, our logic. We have modern medicine.

We are unleashing modern medicine against COVID-19, but only in due time can it take effect. Had we learned from SARS and MERS, very few would have had to die.

Other dangerous diseases lurk. Climate change will bring malaria, dengue, and other tropical diseases to our shores. In particular we have to be prepared against the reoccurrence of something like the 1918 flu—a virus that is regrouping as we speak. Were this virus to infiltrate our bodies and our systems as COVID-19 has done, it could easily kill one to two billion people if we remain as unprepared as we are today.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a more serious threat than anything a laboratory worker could release by accident or a terrorist could unleash on purpose. No need to go there. Mother Nature is dangerous enough and harbors close lookalikes to the COVID-19 virus. We have created countermeasures against agents of biological warfare, but we haven’t adequately prepared ourselves against Nature—and Nature is far more efficient and constant a terrorist than any human ever could be.

We can be prepared, and we have to be. Nature is out to get us, and it is smart. If you ever doubt the power of random chance, look around you and see what it has created. The same life force that built us is trying to destroy us.


Read full article on Forbes

Originally published on Forbes (April 21, 2020)

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.