Coronavirus in Context is a weekly newsletter where we bring you facts that matter about the COVID-19 pandemic and the technology trying to stop its spread. You can subscribe here.
Hola my socially distant amigos,
What happens when “contact tracing” becomes ubiquitous surveillance? I’m asking for about 8 billion friends because I think most countries are about to start tracking citizens in order to facilitate a retreat from quarantine.
When it comes to lifting the “shelter in place” order that exists in most areas, the experts appear to be leaning toward a basic strategy that involves contact tracing and normalizing the wearing of masks in public for the foreseeable future.
Contact tracing is a terrifying but admittedly necessary step that involves tracking down every single person a patient infected with COVID-19 could have come into contact with. I’m nut-shelling it a bit, but the gist is that we stay on top of the spread of the virus so that we can handle the logistics involved in treating it.
There’s a bit of darkness in this idea, because it’s less about minimizing risk and more about managing resources. That’s why the second part, getting everyone to wear masks all the time, is so important. But masks are only as effective as our strict, unwavering adherence to proper mask protocol. And we all know how great the human race is at following rules all the time.
We can’t physically force everyone to wash their hands and wear their masks properly, but many places do intend on using some form or another of technology to conduct massive, mandatory contact tracing.
This, of course, does not mean those places are going to be conducting big brother-style surveillance. In many places we can assume they’ll simply use the information as data points on a heat map to determine where the disease is proliferating.
But, in places like China and the US, where surveillance is already the order of the day, there can be no guarantees. If you trust that your government won’t abuse the incredible power that comes with a writ to track every adult and child within its borders, then you have nothing to worry about.
If you don’t: make sure you understand exactly what you’re agreeing to if you download a government app or end up wearing a government tracking gadget so that you can go back to work.
By the numbers:
Last week we glanced at the current recovery rate versus the current mortality rate.
This week, we’re comparing how many days since the first reported case of COVID-19 with how long H1N1, and the 1918 “Spanish” flu lasted.
- 120 : Days since the first case of COVID-19 was reported. (WHO)
- 116: Days the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic lasted (CDC)
- 1,065: Approximate days the 1918 “Spanish” flu lasted (CDC)
Tweet thread of the week:
What to read:
DiBlasio’s Dick pic tip line, Jeff Bezos’ robotic pandemic dogs, and seriously, don’t drink bleach…
We know, we know… there are a million articles out there on how to stay sane at home: What yoga moves to do, what sourdough bread to bake, how to pick up a phone and actually call someone… so we’re adding to the noise!
In this section, one of our writers will share one weird internet thing they’ve been obsessing over while in lockdown. Last week I extolled the virtues of early 2000’s WWE wrestling. This week I want you to Talk To Transformer.
No, that’s not some funky new slang the kids have come up with. Talk To Transformer is a website where you can visit to interact with OpenAI’s incredible AI-powered text generator called GPT-2.
This is the famous AI that got technology journalists all riled up over the past couple of years. It works like this: You input some text and then press a button. The AI takes your text and “completes” it by adding a few paragraphs to your work.
Here’s a fun example:
As you can clearly see, COVID-19 is the result of chickens becoming ill with the chickenpox after eating a “blood meal” on the farm. This, of course, is gibberish (the AI doesn’t know what it’s talking about), but it sure is a lot of fun.
In the time since we’ve been socially isolated I’ve turned to GPT-2 for advice on art:
…. to figuring out a few details about this newsletter‘s readers:
Considering we’re all stuck inside, there’s worse things you could do with your time than spend it communicating with one of the world’s most advanced AIs. Just remember that GPT-2 is about as intelligent as a refrigerator: use it for entertainment purposes only.
Don’t believe everything you read on social media. Stay healthy and take care of each other,