Robin Hanson is a an economics professor at George Mason University who is known for thinking way outside the box. His 2016 book, The Age of Em, which was my nonfiction book of the year for 2016, envisioned a future where the overwhelming majority of sentient beings were emulations (“ems”) of human brains running on digital hardware up to a million times faster than our current biochemical substrate. He coined the term “Great Filter” to explain why we do not observe the universe to be teeming with advanced civilisations, and explored the implications of whether the filter is an event in the past or future of our own species’ history.
Yesterday, on his Overcoming Bias blog, he posted a provocative article titled “Consider Controlled Infection”. Noting that if the present coronavirus outbreak (or some other in the future) spreads and becomes a global pandemic, so many people may be infected at once that social support and medical infrastructure (for example, intensive care facilities and support equipment such as ventilators) could be overwhelmed.
I see two big potential problems. One is that our medical systems have limited capacities, especially for intensive care. So if everyone gets sick in the same week, not only won’t the vast majority get much of help from hospitals, they may not even be able to get much help from each other, such as via feeding. Perhaps greatly increasing death rates. This problem might be cut if we spread out the infection out over time, so that different people were sick at different times.
The other related problem is where many non-sick people stay away from work to avoid getting sick. If enough people do this, especially at critical infrastructure jobs, then the whole economy may collapse. And not only is a collapsed economy bad for most everyone, sick people do much worse there. Not only can’t they get to a doctor or hospital, they might not even be able to get food or heating/cooling. Infected surfaces don’t get cleaned, and maybe even dead bodies don’t get removed. Thieves don’t get stopped. And so on. We can already see social support partially collapsing in Wuhan now, and it’s not pretty.
He then suggests that if we cannot halt the spread of the disease or provide anything other than supportive care for those who are infected, and on the assumption that recovery from the infection confers immunity against re-infection (which is the case for most such diseases), perhaps a strategy to minimise overall deaths and social disruption would be to deliberately expose groups of people who would be quarantined and provided supportive care until those who survived recovered.
There’s an obvious, if disturbing, solution here: controlled infection. We could not only insist that critical workers go to work, but we might also choose on purpose who gets exposed when. We can’t slow down infection very much, but we can speed it up a lot, via deliberately exposing particular people at particular times, according to a plan.
Such a plan shouldn’t just expose random people early, as they’d be likely to infect others around them. Instead, groups might be taken together to isolated places to be exposed, or maybe whole city blocks could be isolated and then exposed at once. Such a plan should only expose a small fraction of each critical workforce at any one time, so that most of them remain available to keep the lights on.
He goes on to explore how such a program of controlled infection might be managed, and what incentives could be offered to those willing to go early. Read the whole thing. What do you think of the idea? Is it something which, like controlled burns to reduce the impact of wildfires, which we should consider in responding to an outbreak of a potential global pandemic?