Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Digital Artist Stops World Plague

I thought it would be good to continue to provide you with a few short pieces to indicate the range of what I intend for this blog. I hope you will find these pieces interesting. Gradually, I will introduce new commentaries, but for now I will use some favorite sections from a few things I have already written. The following article is based on a fictional account of a world plague that appeared in a Wired magazine supplement in 1995 -- linked to an editorial that appeared in Science magazine in 2000. I was fascinated by the idea that a highly visual person using visualization technologies could make a major discovery without really understanding what he was doing. As Albert Einstein pointed out, sometimes it is very useful not to know too much.

“The future of humanity and microbes likely will unfold as episodes of a suspense thriller that could be titled Our Wits Versus Their Genes.” -- Dr. Joshua Lederberg, Science magazine, 2000

From an imaginary interview in the Wired story --

“Our initial hope was to find some weakness in [the] Mao [plague virus] that we could exploit. But what we found scared the living daylights out of us. . . . What we discovered [was that] . . . in hours, it converted the entire immune system into an ally. We were devastated. [But in time we realized that] we had the human genome nailed, and we had the Mao genome nailed. And we had that marvelous [broadband Internet virtual reality] system for communicating among scientific minds. We used the system to design a new human killer T-cell -- the Mao [plague virus] Killer T. . . .
“How did you do that?

“Actually, it wasn't me; that was Javier's idea.

“But I thought Javier was a graphic designer, not a scientist.

“Which is probably why he cracked it, and we didn't. He worked out the simulation routines that showed how [the] Mao [virus] did the cell intrusion and subversion. And he became fascinated with membrane geometry, not knowing anything about protein electrochemistry or synthesis. For him it was just a graphics puzzle, and he played around with the simulations until he found a surface that would turn the probe back on itself. All we'd asked him to do was modify the program. . . . We thought . . . he would just create a simple command. Instead, he solved the problem of armoring, because if you can simulate it, you can order it up in wetware. When we saw the demo, the [lab] went silent. Absolute silence for perhaps 30 seconds. Then everybody started talking frantically.”

-- Interview excerpt from the story “Savior of the Plague Years 1996-2020,” Wired Scenarios, 1995

Our Wits Versus Their Genes

It is our wits against their genes--and their fast evolution. And it will always be so.

We now understand that we can never live without the microbes. We used to think they were the enemy. Now we can see clearly that they are essential supports for our lives and our world. Finally, we have learned to think more in terms of ecology than warfare, interdependence rather than elimination. Yet we now also know that we can never stop finding new ways to protect ourselves from their occasional pathological outbreaks (and, worse, our own stupidity). We can never adapt through our own genes as quickly as they can--so, we must find other ways. We must use our wits and we must learn to use all the different kinds of cleverness and inventiveness that we have among us. And we can never stop.

When I read Joshua Lederberg's wonderful short essay in Science on how we have come to understand the fundamental nature of infectious disease, I was immediately reminded of the Wired short science fiction story excerpted above. This story has stayed with me, recurring to mind from time to time, since I first read it years ago. A good test of a good piece. I thought there might be a special connection between the two that would be of interest to those who know something about the near-term and longer-term prospects for computer graphics.

Initially, it is a bold and almost silly idea--the world being saved by a digital artist--during a fictional time of global plague where small surviving colonies were linked by a diminished but still functioning Internet. Yet, the way the story is told, the idea gained unexpected credibility. And behind the story there is a greater question and possibly a deeper understanding--one that we have been dealing with for some time in its various aspects.

That is, of course, does the skill, the technology, the kind of mind and the special experience of the digital artist actually lend itself distinctly to solving certain kinds of problems better than others? And might these solutions (one day) have unexpectedly broad impact? Perhaps we have a short story here that could be making a statement that has greater weight than many volumes of science or policy or procedure. Considering the enduring importance of the topic, it would appear that it could be of special interest to many beyond the comparatively small world of computer graphics. And, considering the more recent history since 2000 of global threats from SARS, anthrax, mad cow disease and bird flu, it would seem that all of us would have a deeper and more enduring interest.

Just a Graphics Puzzle

I had long admired the Wired Scenarios story because it seemed to capture in a few words (and provocatively doctored photographs), my own long-held belief--that the visual approach has a special power for seeing patterns and solving problems which is not properly or fully appreciated. Too often, it is assumed that what is wanted is to know a lot of facts and to recall them quickly and accurately, on demand. The training and selection for most of our professions, from law to medicine, is based mainly on this narrow idea.

However, the literature on creativity has long observed that the most important thing is seeing the big patterns and seeing the unexpected connections and novel solutions. For this, it is often the outsider who has the advantage of seeing the unexpected pattern what the well-trained professionals within the field somehow miss. The story of the less than fully trained and less than fully informed outsider making the big discovery is in fact a commonplace in the history of science.

By his own report, as we have already noted, Albert Einstein relied more on his mental images than the kinds of mathematics used by his associates. Indeed, as we have noted, as Einstein became a better mathematician, several have argued that his creativity became considerably diminished, as his approach became more mathematical (more conventional) and less visual (less original). It is striking that this pattern was noted separately both by the physicist Richard Feynman and the scientist and author Abraham Pais.

One mathematician of Einstein’s own era, David Hilbert, a great admirer of Einstein's work, came close himself to some of the early basic insights involved in general relativity. Yet Hilbert did not claim any share of Einstein's major accomplishment. However, he did make clear, with no small amount of exaggeration, that Einstein's ideas came from other places than his mathematical skill. “Every boy on the streets of Göttingen,” he said, “understands more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein. Yet, in spite of that, Einstein did the work and not the mathematicians.”

I was pleased to see the authors of the Wired story acknowledge these observations. But I was even more pleased to see them focus on the skills and approach of a computer graphics artist--one who saw the solution to the disease process as “just a graphics puzzle” involving “membrane geometry.” Since (in the story) they were all using virtual reality (VR) simulations of the microbes, he could visualize directly the various structures. Because of the VR images, he did not have to rely on years of training and experience to build a crude personal mental image of what was going on at the surface of the molecule.

It is quite easy to imagine that someday soon discoveries such as this may be routinely expected with powerful graphic computers and as that high-quality VR and high bandwidth Internet connections have become more and more widely available. With such technological developments, a lot of previously unrecognized talent could come quickly and unexpectedly into play. In the end, of course, you need both the experts and the outsiders. You also need a large and varied team with many kinds of training and native talents in order to find solutions as well as implement remediation programs. In the not too distant future, with the widespread use of new visualization technologies, perhaps we will all grow to have a greater appreciation of what each person, and each kind of brain, can bring to such a problem, whether in medicine or other areas.

Around the World in 80 Hours

In his Science essay, Dr. Lederberg, pointed out that in our competition with microbes many of our recent technical and economic advances play right into the strengths of the fast-adapting, tiny creatures. We live longer and world population grows, doubling twice in the last century, fostering “new vulnerabilities.” There is greater crowding, making disease transmission between individuals easier. Continued destruction of forests brings greater contact with disease-carrying animals and insects. Increased freedom in travel and trade further compound these problems. “Travel around the world,” he says, “can be completed in less than 80 hours (compared to the 80 days of Jules Verne's 19th-century fantasy), constituting a historic new experience.”

Everywhere this long-distance travel has become frequent and routine: “Well over a million passengers, each one a potential carrier of pathogens, travel daily by aircraft to international destinations. International commerce, especially in foodstuffs, only adds to the global traffic of potential pathogens and vectors [carriers]. Because the transit times of people and goods are now so short compared to the incubation times of disease, carriers of disease can arrive at their destination before the danger they harbor is detectable, reducing health quarantine to a near absurdity.”

Dr. Lederberg also points out that when it comes to the pathological development of microbes, we may be our own worst enemies. He observes that “the darker corner of microbiological research is the abyss of maliciously designed biological warfare (BW) agents and systems to deliver them. What a nightmare for the next millennium! What's worse, for the near future, technology is likely to favor offensive BW weaponry. . . .” The events of years since 2000 have, of course, made Dr. Lederberg’s words even more troubling.

Brilliant Flashes

Consequently, in the long run as well as the short run, we can see that it is indeed our wits against their genes. And it will always be so. Mostly, as Dr. Lederberg explains, we now see that microbes are essential supports for our lives and our world. They are everywhere--and mostly they are on our side, more or less. However, we do need to be aware that in spite of medical successes and a wiser understanding of ecological perspectives, that serious problems probably lie ahead.

We know more, but our economic and political successes may create enormous future problems. However, we may take some heart in expecting that the spread of new visualization technologies (among other things) may help to promote a more comprehensive view of our whole situation--promoting strong visual thinkers to make wiser decisions about the future for us all. And, with some luck, we may learn to explicitly appreciate the full value of digital artists (and those like them)--and their real life potential to be true global heros if the worst were to happen.

While we have learned to think more in terms of ecology than warfare, we all now know that we can never stop searching for new ways to protect ourselves. We can never adapt through our own genes as quickly as the microbes can. We must find other ways. So, we have to use our wits and we must learn to use all the different kinds of cleverness and inventiveness that we have among us--especially among those who might be best suited to seeing patterns and structures that might be missed by the experts. We need to search a broader field with greater success. Because we can never stop.

From Thinking Like Einstein, Chapter 5, “When the World Plague Was Stopped by a Digital Artist.”