Learning from Lab Leaks
Ingenuism Weekly 33
“Science fiction does not remain fiction for long. And certainly not on the Internet.” –Vinton Cerf
The Great Reshuffle – Silicon Valley Examined 22
In this episode of the Silicon Valley Examined podcast, Robert Hendershott and Don Watkins speculate about how the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the economy, from the rise of remote work to increased entrepreneurship.
Learning from Lab Leaks
Robert Hendershott and Don Watkins
It is two years into the COVID-19 pandemic and as we learned in our recent interview with Matt Ridley, we still don’t know the original source of the virus.
This is not that surprising: tracing the origins of a virus is complex. Heck, it wasn’t even possible until recently.
Nevertheless, it’s notable that we identified the likely originating virus for SARS in civets within a year after the disease was first recognized in humans. That was a miracle of biotechnology progress, but we have much better technology for identifying virus DNA today than we did 18 years ago. So, it’s concerning is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear path forward to discovering the source of the COVID-19 virus.
Whether you believe the virus originated in animals or from a lab leak, this should concern you. (Full disclosure: we believe it is too early for confidence in either origin hypothesis. But as time passes without a precursor virus being discovered in nature, the odds we place on a lab being involved grow.)
Why? Two reasons.
First, it means we’re missing an opportunity to learn valuable lessons. Whether the virus emerged from the Wuhan wet market or Wuhan Institute of Virology (or elsewhere), there are valuable lessons to be discovered in advance of the next pandemic.
Mistakes—even costly mistakes—can be acceptable if we learn from them so that safety improves over time. Air travel used to be at least a little risky. Now it has been 18 years since there was a fatal crash in the United States thanks to progress from learning gleaned from mistakes.
Risks may be a necessary evil in the short term—failure is how you learn—but the goal is to never make the same mistake twice. If there was a lab leak, what are the lessons to prevent similar leaks (potentially in labs around the world) from happening again? If COVID-19 is the latest example of zoonotic spillover, what can we do to minimize this risk going forward?
Second reason: the response to the pandemic is eroding instead of strengthening trust. Trust empowers connection and collaboration. Trust is necessary for effective exploration and discovery. In short, more trust equals more progress.
Gain of function research, for example, has obvious potential costs along with its potential benefits. Support for risky research is predicated on the risks being minimized—both in the moment and over time. So far the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has eroded, not bolstered, trust that researchers are honest about mistakes, learn from them, and share the lessons to the benefit of all.
If we don’t trust people to learn from and effectively deal with mistakes, then the precautionary principle starts to look attractive. That puts the exploration/discovery process that underpins Ingenuism, innovation, and progress at risk.
The biggest trust killer in this story is China. China’s lack of transparency (along with others’ use of the pandemic to score points against China) will mean less connection and collaboration between China and the world. Can researchers rely on data from Chinese scientists? Can American or European companies collaborate with Chinese companies given China’s control over its own businesses? Undermining trust means undermining the connection that fortifies progress and has created miracles over the past century.
Lack of trust leads to rejecting Ingenuism, which sacrifices progress and human wellbeing at a cost that would dwarf even the massive direct suffering the pandemic has imposed on the planet. We trust that humanity finds that price too high.
Credit where credit’s due
Until relatively recently, Brazil’s banks had a monopoly on issuing credit cards. So if you wanted a credit card, you’d have to trek over to the bank along with more paperwork than the average trip DMV requires. And if you were young and didn’t have a credit history? Good luck getting that credit card.
But then something funny happened. In 2013, Brazil’s central bank managed to pass legislation that allowed for the creation of “payment institutions.” And the banks, taking their dominance for granted, didn’t bother to fight it.
Welp. Now Brazil is enjoying a fintech revolution, led by Nubank.
Mr. Vélez designed Nubank to offer consumers its no-fee card via an online application. No credit history, no problem. Card users’ limits start small but as a record of paying back debt is established, those limits grow. Building a credit history is beneficial for the cardholder; for those who pay off their balances every month, the card is a hassle-free, no-cost convenience.
It's incredible how a single policy, when it opens the road to exploration and discovery, can be transformative.
Take two of these cameras and call me in the morning
Pretty soon your doctor may be asking you to swallow a camera.
Not that one! These cameras are about the size of a grain of salt.
According to Princeton Engineering:
The new system can produce crisp, full-color images on par with a conventional compound camera lens 500,000 times larger in volume, the researchers reported in a paper published Nov. 29 in Nature Communications.
Enabled by a joint design of the camera’s hardware and computational processing, the system could enable minimally invasive endoscopy with medical robots to diagnose and treat diseases, and improve imaging for other robots with size and weight constraints. Arrays of thousands of such cameras could be used for full-scene sensing, turning surfaces into cameras.
The point about computational processing is important. The only reason these cameras work is because we can use machine learning to process the photos.
A key innovation in the camera’s creation was the integrated design of the optical surface and the signal processing algorithms that produce the image. This boosted the camera’s performance in natural light conditions, in contrast to previous metasurface cameras that required the pure laser light of a laboratory or other ideal conditions to produce high-quality images.
Expect some weird selfies in the not-too-distant future.
A Roaring Twenties Redux?
Noah Smith runs down some technology trends that should have us excited as we head in to 2022. It’s hard to excerpt so read the whole thing. I think Noah is probably too optimistic about wind/solar/battery technology, but on the whole, a wonderful list if you’re feeling at all pessimistic about the future.
And if you’re really patient, check out Prime Mover Labs’ vision for 2050.
Could saving the earth be this boring?
An asteroid capable of wiping out life on earth is coming our way. What do we do?
Shelter in place with loved ones?
Send Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck up into space for some nuclear shenanigans?
Eh. Maybe we’ll just crash an unmanned spacecraft into it.
[D]eflecting an object from deep space on its way to a deadly rendezvous with Earth has become a preferred solution at these practice drills for protecting the planet. Yet no one knows whether the technique will actually work. Never in human history has our species tried to knock an asteroid away from our world.
That is about to change. On Wednesday at 1:21 a.m. Eastern time, NASA launched the Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, or DART, from a U.S. Space Force base in California (it was Tuesday local time). A 1,200-pound, refrigerator-size spacecraft will trek around the sun to slam into a small asteroid named Dimorphos at 15,000 miles per hour next year. If the mission succeeds, it could demonstrate for the first time humanity’s ability to punch a potentially hazardous asteroid away from Earth.
For the sake of humanity, I really hope this works. But the future of asteroid movies is not looking good.
Meanwhile, maybe exploiting Yellowstone for geothermal energy will save us from a super-volcanic apocalypse!
Until next time,
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