COVID-19 vaccines are our 'moonshot project' and will enable the future of artificial intelligence

COVID-19 vaccines are our 'moonshot project' and will enable the future of artificial intelligence
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In Silicon Valley, “moonshot” is the term used to describe an invention that will change the course of history. Moonshots tend to be thought of only in terms of their end goals, from interplanetary colonization to truly self-driving cars.

Very little focus is placed on the downstream effects of such projects. The original moonshot — NASA’s landing of Americans on the moon — necessitated unprecedented innovations in software, communications, aerospace engineering, materials science, manufacturing, propulsion engineering, and more. These advances directly and immediately impacted dozens of global industries — extending way beyond aerospace.

Perhaps the most important moonshot project currently underway is the R&D devoted to vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 and the plans being made to better counter future pandemics.


The downstream effects from these efforts will be profound.

The COVID era has made it clear that as a species, humans need help adapting to swift change and solving big problems. The truth is that many of the problems that we face as a civilization or as a collective are simply beyond the capacity of the unaided human brain to solve. We have relatively little understanding of how the brain even works.

If we want to feed the poor by optimizing agriculture around the world, cure cancers by knowing how cancer cells populate, or develop cheap and clean energy with fusion engines, humanity needs far more powerful tools than what we have today. Humans have always required more complex tools to solve ever more complex problems.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been a tremendous enabling force in the fight against COVID. Like never before, private companies, non-profits, and government agencies have come together to point GPUs at speeding scientific research and work toward a cure. Early in the pandemic, we saw tech giants including Microsoft and Google partner with government agencies and nonprofits such as the White House, NIH, The CDC, and the Allen Institute for AI. Through collaboration, the best minds and best technology worked together to begin to solve the biological puzzle of COVID-19.

This collaboration has put us on a path to potentially the fastest ever vaccine production and distribution in history. But a vaccine will not be the sole output of this moonshot. Here are the key downstream effects that I believe started by pointing AI at COVID:


The United States government will invest more in AI

I believe that it took the current crisis we are in for budget committees to see the value in investing more in AI for non-military applications. What COVID-19 has proven is that non-military threats can have dire consequences to the health of citizens and the economic security of the country. Another pandemic is inevitable, and by investing in AI — not just for medical solutions, but things like efficient supply chains, PPE, sanitation, and private contact tracing —the response can become more adaptable, because it’s underpinned by AI.

The United States doesn’t build roads, it creates infrastructure packages and contracts the work out to private industry. This has started to be realized as the government proactively recognizes that most AI development is going to be done in the private sector. And in order for the government to spend and react to crises more efficiently, it will need the help of the best AI minds in the private sector. Recent efforts have been made to boost this public-private partnership with the formation of the Joint AI Center at the Department of Defense and several government investment funds like the Defense Innovation Unit.

Cities will get smarter

In the late 1700s, yellow fever killed about 10 percent of Philadelphians, yet it was the force that propelled city leaders to republish unenforced laws and mandate a biweekly trash collection program. In 1800, the epidemic was also credited with setting into motion Philadelphia's municipal water system — the first of its kind in the country.

Today our cities may seem totally complete and hygienic, but there are massive opportunities to apply AI in new ways. For example, Biobot Analytics, a startup out of MIT, is measuring levels of the novel Coronavirus, opioids, and more in wastewater facilities. Prior to COVID-19, very few communities in the country were testing their wastewater, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently put up a bid to test up to 30 percent of the country’s wastewater as an “early warning system” for future COVID-19 outbreaks. This infrastructure ingrained in cities creates the power to inform data-driven policies and municipal responses to much more than Coronavirus.

AI will be further used in healthcare

In the beginning of the pandemic, BlueDot, a health surveillance startup, applied AI and was one of the first parties to identify the spread and the risk of a cluster of new pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. They then used this software and data to accurately predict where it would spread to next. Over the last six months, we have seen how AI has allowed data to become a lens into the health of our populations. For many, the modeling of predicted COVID-19 spread was one of the first times that novel methods of Deep Learning and Machine Learning were applied in a manner that was discussed on the nightly news — opening up the conversation of how further understanding data can be applied to other healthcare crises.

Even before the pandemic, companies like Recursion Pharmaceuticals were using AI and pointing GPUs at tough healthcare problems. But in the light of the current landscape, leaders in this space are seeing the power of data and AI unlike ever before. Longtime pharmaceutical leader Bayer, recently announced plans to use Recursion’s platform to help comb through its libraries of potential small molecule treatments, and Recursion also announced $239 million in new funding. I expect this type of interest in AI will continue to be implemented and revolutionize the type of health research and care we receive.


The examples above are just a few of the ways that we will benefit from the pandemic response. Further investment and advancement in AI also has the power to increase automation, lower dependencies on foreign supply chains, and more.

I am certain that the U.S. will emerge stronger and more technologically sound because of the investment and collaboration around AI during COVID-19.

The lethality of COVID-19 has made this moonshot the most important of our generation, but humanity is resilient, and part of that resilience will be enabled by AI.

Evan Sparks is CEO of Determined AI. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from Berkeley where his research focused on distributed systems for data analysis and machine learning.