Geschrieben am 1. Mai 2020 von für Crimemag, CrimeMag Mai 2020

Christopher G. Moore: The virus as computer code #covid-19

Abstract futuristic electronic circuit board high-tech background

Purging the virus from the human network

What if SARS-CoV2 runs like a piece of computer code?

What if for purposes of a coronavirus our relationships function like a computer network?

You download the source code of the virus from others who are infected. You don’t need to use your mouse to click on an icon. You only need to have someone cough or sneeze on you, or touch a surface they’ve touch, and then you touch your face.

Once downloaded the virus opens, loads its code into our system and we pass it along to another host. Or if we are a super-spreader, we pass it along to dozens or hundreds of others.

The big picture is to understand what the virus teaches is a lesson about who we are.

We are one connected network that has a cultural/ideological flaw premised on the idea that the individual is the first order of importance. The virus has triggered a failsafe hidden feature of a hidden in plain sight network: it’s ability to co-ordinate all nodes, shut down their access channels, isolate and test them, and prevent widespread network infection. 

From what I can see, this challenge hasn’t been met. In other words, it is hopeless for the human network to coordinate the appropriately scaled actions. We are likely lucky with this virus. This is a test run. The next one will hit the network with considerably more force, rip it apart and leave a group of toothless savages eating slugs embedded in dried out riverbeds.

A comparison of Sars-CoV2 with viruses in computer networks is instructive. We are more used to dealing with viruses in computers. A lot of money is invested in protecting computer system. According to one source, “US business spend approximately $8billion per year on virus protection for computers and network equipment.” Add to that amount an additional $55 billion per year spent dealing with viruses and cleaning up after an attack.

The history of computer viruses and the damage caused in the early 2000s is well documented. Maybe you remember around the time of SARS-CoV1, in 2004 when MyDoom Worm caused an estimated $38 billion in damage.  A year earlier was SQL Slammer Worm. In 2008 around the time of MERS, Sasser Worm and Conficker Worm causing billions of dollars-worth of damage to airlines, US government email servers, phones, and internet service. There is a parallel history between computer virus and human viruses. Or there was. But times have changed.

When is the last time you read about a computer virus doing massive billion dollars’ worth of damage? It’s been a long-time. There is no doubt many complex reasons to explain the absence of such computer viruses.

One reason is business and government paid for protection. An industry based on providing security arose to make computer systems more secure, more difficult to infect with a virus. A lot was at stake: commerce, trade, communications, manufacturing, banking, stock markets, and finance depend on secure, protected computer networks. We invested heavily in our economic infrastructure to protect it against viruses. If you want to secure computer from a virus you put an air gap between your computer and the Internet or any network.  

Meanwhile, you fund research and development and create surveillance systems to protect against virus attacks.

Why don’t we treat the viruses that infect people with the same commitment? Because we don’t. What’s the public and private investment in research and development to protect human beings from being the target of a virus?

That is, as it turns out, a very different story. The conclusion from the lack of funding for a pandemic virus in the human population suggests neglect, indifference, marginalization; it suggests policy makers and government officials, through their actions, discounted the risk of a pandemic. The proof is found in the dismal level of funding. Making the world safe from viruses for computer networks hasn’t trickle down to making the world safer for human beings.

“On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) determined that the outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that originated in China was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Although researchers quickly identified and sequenced the virus, our weak global pandemic preparedness system has led to rising numbers of people infected with 2019-nCoV worldwide. The virus is highly transmissible, and is likely to become a pandemic. WHO has requested $675 million for a coronavirus preparedness and response plan.” 

If you look at allocation of resources and priorities, computer come out far ahead of human beings when it comes to protection against viruses.

The code in the virus acts like a virus code like a rogue malicious piece of computer code. Here’s the thing to remember about computers. There’s a term called “air gap” or “air gapping”. That means you can prevent any virus from infecting your computer simply by not connecting to a network. You can still use your computer for many things but connecting in networks with other computers isn’t one of them.

Social Distancing – in London (cc Wikimedia)

Think of social distancing as the human equivalent of air gapping. You can move around so long as you stay apart from others. Unlike computers, we are a social species and air gapping isn’t a long-term solution. It provides, however, a space for scientists to find a treatment or vaccine. That requires funding. How has that worked out?

The Trump administration cut funding for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by 20% or US$1.3 billion dollar below the 2019 budget

The computer virus analogy asks you to think of this particular coronavirus as a clever piece of code that reproduces itself on as many human host systems as it can possibly transmit itself into. We are the hardware for the RNA code that uses ACE2 receptors as the perfect trapdoor to enter our cells and reproduces millions of copies.

The Sars-CoV2 virus has a peculiar feature that makes it powerful — it’s effectiveness of transmission and its long latency period in many people that show no symptoms but are highly contagious. Our social behaviour and network of relationships make us function for purposes of the virus as one big super computer with 7.8B potential nodes in the network. That’s why our air gap requires a system to isolate human beings from the network of other human beings.

Of course that isolation and social distancing comes at a cost. Politicians and non-scientific populists share a common ground to quickly reboot the human system. Businesses want to reopen. People want to go back to work to feed their families. A lot of jobs and money is at stake in getting the big super computer of the human species up and running again. There’s no point in rebooting a system that is still infected with the virus and reconnecting it to the network.

The Laws of physics, chemistry and biology will send the message on the reboot attempt. My sense of the message is that the coronavirus is a highly efficient reiteration mechanism like the “ILOVEYOU” virus. This virus neither loves nor hates. It’s a piece of code and depends on efficient network transmission, and that depends on maintaining the close, dense space occupied by interacting hosts. The virus — until there is a vaccine or it burns itself out — will continue to write itself into us as a species with what appears to be great efficiency. After millions of reiteration comes mutations in the code. 

For some viruses in the past, they became milder. No one has any idea whether than will be the case with mutated code in SARS-CoV2. One way to run the experiment is to bunch together a large population and see how these new virus reiterations run. The idea behind so-called ‘herd immunity’ is little changes in the virus code as it reiterates millions of times through the population. There’s no data to indicate this is true of SARS-CoV2 virus.

3D print of a SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—virus particle (cc Wikimedia)

There is evidence that the SARS-CoV2 Virus, as code, works to destroy our motherboard: lungs, kidneys, heart, brain, gut. We are on alert that early data indicates a level of damage that is only beginning to emerge. We see the first hint that the daily reports of confirmed cases, deaths, and recovered needs a reality check. The category of “Recovered” may be an illusion as we have focused most of our attention on the damage to the lungs of a person with a severe case of Covid-19. The ACE2 receptors are also prevalent in those other locations. If you downloaded an equivalent virus into your computer, you might find that while the system is no longer stable and crashes. Rebooting does no good. The system no longer works.

Science Magazine chronicles the list of internal damage inside the human body caused by the virus to date. It’s a horrifying picture. Keep in mind, the data remains limited. We remain at an early stage of the pandemic. That means it is impossible to know now how common these reports will prove to be. A couple of years from now there will be many studies, reports, documentaries, interviews on the extent and level of damage.

Without broad scale testing as economic system are opened, by the time it is discovered that the virus has returned and infected a new generation, we might be worse off than before. We won’t know the unless we move cautiously, test, watch the results, and comb the data to see if the coronavirus has returned.

We are all potential hosts for this virus. We are all part of a network of people. Like a computer we are vulnerable by doing what we’ve always done: socialized in stadiums, bars, churches, clubs, rallies, schools, universities, and workplaces. Our methods of air gapping separates and isolates us. We can compute. But we can’t network. What happens when we are all back online in large numbers huddling together? Will it be: WHAM! The virus returns with more force in a new wave?

That experiment is unfolding in a number of countries. The outcome will impact the lives of many millions of people.

We need to see how the experiment turns out. One pathway may establish that our species never evolved a durable long-term comprehensive network for 7.8B nodes. It was only a matter of time before the human network crashed and won’t reboot. We are simply lack the capacity to efficiency network such numbers. Our network is built on a primitive biological platform that uses the slow system of Nature of update. Maybe with AGI we’d have a chance. That’s a race against time. 

I’d wager a 10% probability on AGI arriving before an irrevocable network crash takes the species down to the small group it was evolved to live in. The odds are stacked against such an ancient network system surviving long-term. If not this pandemic, then the next one; if not the next pandemic, then climate change promises drought, extreme heat, new diseases, and extreme weather. 

We appear destined to return to the the operational level our network platform evolved to function.

Christopher G. Moore, a Canadian novelist and essayist, living in Bangkok, is CrimeMag’s South East Asia correspondent and the author of the award-winning Vincent Calvino series and a number of literary novels and non-fiction books. His books have been translated into 13 languages. The Christopher G. Moore Foundation is awarding a literary prize for a work of non-fiction, which advances understanding of human rights and freedom of Expression.

A (German) review of his novel „Springer“ (Jumpers) here.
„Bloody Questions“ from Marcus Muentefering here.
His essays with CrimeMag here.
His website here.