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Exploring the Impacts of COVID

April 26, 2021
Nicholas Christakis


This week our guest is renowned sociologist, physician, and Yale professor, Nicholas Christakis, who was once listed by Time magazine as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the world. He’s particularly known for his expertise on social networks, as well as his work exploring the evolutionary and socioeconomic determinants of behavior and health.

Dr. Christakis is the author of the renowned 2019 book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, and more recently, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, which we discuss heavily in this episode.

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Host: Steven Parton // Music by: Amine el Filali


The following transcription was created automatically. Please be aware that there may be spelling or grammatical errors.


virus, people, pandemic, endow, nuance, germs, plague, human, happening, impacts, social interactions, studying, spread, society, kill, cooperation, disease, lab, world, years


Nicholas Christakis, Steven Parton

Nicholas Christakis  00:00

And so in a very real way you can say that the spread of germs is the price we pay for the spread of ideas. I come near you to work with you to cooperate and benefit from working with you and learning from you. But now the virus or other germs, exploit that to spread. But equally, and ironically, it's the case that it's by working together and teaching each other things that we will beat the germ.

Steven Parton  00:38

Hello, everyone, you're listening to the feedback loop on singularity radio, where we keep you up to date on the latest technological trends and how they're impacting the transformation of consciousness and culture from the individual to society at large. This week, our guest is renowned sociologist and Yale Professor Nicholas Christakis, who is once listed by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world. He's particularly well known for his expertise on social networks, as well as his work exploring the evolutionary and socio economic determinants of behavior and health. Many of you might recognize Nicolas from his appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast where he discussed his two latest books blueprint, the evolutionary origins of a good society, which was released in 2019. And his latest publication that came out just a handful of months ago, Apollo's arrow, the profound and enduring impact of the Coronavirus on the way we live. And this conversation will be focusing heavily on his latter publication Apollo's arrow where we explore how Dr. Christakis his unique background and expertise make him a prime candidate for discussing and explaining the ways the Coronavirus COVID-19 is impacting and will impact humanity. It was truly an honor to get a chance to sit down with such an expert in the field and to gain some clear understanding about the subject that has been surrounded by so much constant misinformation. So without further ado, everyone, please welcome to the feedback loop. Nicholas Christakis. I would just love if you could give us a little bit of your background,


I'm a physician and a social scientist. And for you know, for quite a number of years now, I've been studying human social networks, and how the structure of human social interactions affects our experience of the world. Here I'm talking about the mathematical structure, you know, the way networks are organized, and, and had been studying also processes that spread on networks. You know, germs can spread on networks, money spreads on networks, ideas spread on networks, emotions spread on networks, behavior spread on networks, and my laboratory, has been doing experiments online and around the world with global health applications, looking at how to manipulate and understand these processes. So for example, if if we're working in a developing world Village, and we're trying to get all the women, let's say, to vaccinate their babies, which women in the village do, we have to persuade, given where they are in the social network of that village such that if they vaccinate their babies, all the other women in the village will also vaccinate their babies? How do we create artificial tipping points, for example. So you know, I've spent a long time studying these things. And in 2009, we did some work on the h1 and one pandemic. And it sort of invented a new method of forecasting the course of an epidemic based on social networks and published some papers, I had a little TED talk about that, you know, how to using social networks to predict epidemics or something like that was a title I don't remember. And and then my lab does a whole bunch of things. You know, I my laboratory at Yale, we work on, like I said, on these global health field trials, we work on online experiments, how can we reduce racism online? How can we increase cooperation online? How can we, how can we engineer social interactions in a way that makes them better enhancing human performance and human goodness? And, and my lab also works in artificial intelligence, and how can we design bots, creating what I call hybrid systems of humans and machines, where we can program the bots with very simple AI. And because the bots have been dropped amidst a group of humans who are of course much smarter than the bots, the bots just act like a catalyst, lowering the activation energy, making it easier, helping the humans to help themselves in other words, rather than doing things on their own, the bots just can be very simple, actually, and yet have very big impact. And we have another division in the group that does, that does the biology of human social interactions, the genetics of friendship, you know, how do we pick our friends? Why do we have friends at all? Why did natural selection equip us to have friends? the microbiome, we study the microbiome. So we have a big lab that does many things related to human social interaction, as you can see from artificial intelligence to global health to the microbiome. Anyhow, I had a long standing collaboration with some Chinese colleagues, where we had been using big data techniques, phone data to look at human mobility, to study various phenomena in China, for example, after an earthquake, how does an earthquake disrupt social interactions. And they contacted me in January and they said, you know, we have this data. And there's this pandemic. And I was aware that there was a an incipient epidemic in China, you know, reading news reports in early January, but I hadn't really focused my attention on it. And these Chinese colleagues contacted me to do some research together. And therefore, I began to really be paying attention to what was happening in China. And then about 10 days after we started working together, the Chinese government closed Wuhan on the 23rd or 24th of January, and then who Bay province the next day around it. And within a day after that, the Chinese government had put 930 million people under home confinement, a billion people on our planet were restricted to their homes, as of January the 25th. That really got my attention. I mean, I was like, Whoa, you know, that the Chinese seeing this virus a sufficient threat, that they basically detonated a social nuclear weapon to stop it. And, and with my co authors, we use the phone data to track the movements of 11 11 million, nearly 11 million people transiting through Han and spreading out around China during the month of January. And we were able to show this was a paper that was published in a scientific journal called nature. In April, we submitted the paper in February,


looking at the flow of people, you know, and predicting the course of the epidemic, and so by the middle of February, the virus had my undivided attention. And I was, I knew it was going to be a serious pandemic. And I was very worried and disturbed that the American popular conversation about this topic didn't seem to reflect the reality we were facing. And so by January, by March, the fifth, I was locked down myself at my home, in my home in Vermont. And so I was trying to think of what could I do with my time and I thought, well, I could help advance the public understanding of science if by writing a book about the pandemic, and and so that's what led me to, unexpectedly, right, Apollo zero.


Were you able to carry a lot of lessons over from that previous work? And was there just a natural progression or had you previously in the lab study things like viruses and transmission and whatnot?


Well, actually, the irony isn't when I was 20, in 1981, or so or 19, I spent a year away from college in a biology lab in Paris, where we were studying Coronavirus. And actually, it's a bit of a interesting well, interest. I don't know how interesting the story is, I'll just tell you the story you can decide for yourself. It's interesting, but I was desperate to take a year off from college. I went to college, I was a year young I started when I was 17, I was sort of immature, I wanted to grow up a little bit. And I was looking for opportunities. And by incredible serendipity, I was able to get a offer for a job in a lab in Paris, I could speak French. And I met someone who there was this virology lab in Paris run by a guy by the name of George Perez at the OP del San Louis, in Paris. And he they were looking for someone who could speak English to translate their scientific papers from French into English. And that was my only like, marketable skill at that stage in my life. Like I could speak like I could speak English. And so so they said, Yes, we'll hire I was smart, you know, I was but you know, they said, Okay, we'll hire you come to Paris, and we'll give you a job as a research assistant in our lab and your prime, you'll do a bunch of stuff around the lab, but your primary duty is going to be to translate French into English. So I was excited by that I could learn how to do some work in biology. And at the time, I had also had some experience in a neuroscience lab in the marine biology lab at MBL and Woods Hole. And, and I was at MBL. And in those days, there was no internet. And so I got this letter back from this French biologist and my postdoc that I was working with, sort of my supervisor said, Let's go to the library and, and figure out what the scientist does in Paris. You know what this crazy guy you're about to work for. So we go to the library, we pull the papers by George Perez, and they were very interested in animal reservoirs of various kinds of viruses, coronaviruses, rotaviruses, and other viruses and, and that were the cause to get that No cause gastrointestinal problems. And so you reading the scientific papers that describe they were studying the structure and function of these viruses. And they said research assistants were dispatched into the streets of Paris to collect dog feces, you know, for study in the laboratory. And so my postdoc is like, starts laughing and he goes to this is going to be your job. He says, your job still gonna be to translate papers into English, your job is going to be collect dogshit on the streets of Paris. And that's exactly right. In fact, in fact, what happened, I get to the lab like I land in Paris, it takes me a week or two to find that apartment and I go to the lab the first day and they said, Yes, welcome, you know, and they give me a little stainless steel pooper scooper like a scientific bloopers Cooper. Like some specimens. So um, so yeah, so I had some virology experience very limited, you know, very early in my life. But as I mentioned earlier, we had also studied the spread of germs, in social networks, you know, we looked at the h1, n one pandemic, for example. And we looked at how, with, with my colleague, Fang foo, who's an applied mathematician at Dartmouth, and, and, and, and a number of other scientists, we, we looked at how viruses and be and behaviors spread simultaneously what we call dueling contagions. So you have this biological contagion, where the virus is moving across our social network ties. And you have a social contagion of like a behavior, like wearing a mask or getting vaccinated, that's simultaneously spreading and there's actually some interesting mathematics there about differential equations and a bunch of other stuff. But anyway, there's, it's it's a hard problem to figure out, like, how do you solve, you know, which you're what's the steady state in this situation where you have these competing, each contagion interferes with the other. And so we've done all this work on that and of course, as I mentioned, we looked at all kinds of other spreading processes. And as you mentioned, I had done this book blueprint, because a big part of my research agenda is trying to understand the deep origins of human social nature and of you know, why we love each other. For example, why are we endowed with a capacity for love or why are we endowed with the capacity for, for a friendship, you know, we, we form long term non reproductive unions, to other members of our species, namely we have friends this is this is very weird other animals don't do this, I mean, we do it, certain primates do it elephants do it, both Asian and African and certain cetacean species. So, natural selection has endowed us with this capacity and also with other capacities, natural selection has endowed us with the the we act altruistically towards non kin, for example, we we adopt unrelated children, other animals very rarely do this, you know, we, we teach each other things, the listeners are probably taking it for granted that we teach each other things, but it's actually very weird that we teach each other things other animals don't teach, ever, most animals learn independently, they learn, you know, an animal and exploring its environment is capable of learning.


A little fish swimming in the sea can learn that if it swims up, it'll find food there. That's independent learning. Some animals also learn socially, by observing other animals. So for example, you put your hand in the fire, you learn that it burns, that's independent learning. Or I watch you put your hand in the fire and see that you burned yourself. Again, almost as much knowledge fire burns, but I pay none of the price that's incredibly efficient. We do something even more than that, we actually teach each other I teach you to build a fire. So all of these wonderful qualities that we have, and these are all the subject of research that we do in the lab and also blueprint that I had written, but they're also relevant as it turns out to, to the pandemic. Because you see the germ, we have evolved to form social networks and to live in groups, because of the benefits of such social living because of the benefits of social learning and the benefits of cooperation. We can work together to hunt big game, for example, and so on. But the virus exploits those social interactions to spread if we were all hermits and lived apart. There'd be no contagious disease, right? If we lived out of mystically. But we don't, we live in groups in a very specific kinds of groups actually, and the virus, the germs have evolved to exploit this. And so in a very real way, you can say that the spread of germs is the price we pay for the spread of ideas. I come near you to work with you to cooperate and benefit from working with you and learning from you. But now the virus or other germs, exploit that to spread but equally, and ironically, it's the case that it's by working together and teaching each other things that we will beat the germ. So the same, the same qualities that we have, that the virus exploits for its survival are the qualities that we exploit for our survival. And, and so in fact, all of this other work that you're alluding to, that we have been doing in the lab over the years is in fact highly relevant to understand Standing, what an epidemic disease is and what it does to a collectivity.


Yeah, that's something that I initially was a little at odds with, I guess when I was thinking about your transition from blueprint to Apollo zero. And then I started looking deeper, and I started realizing how incredibly interesting integrated the our social behavior is with the pandemic. And it's one thing you pointed out, I think, and Apollo's arrows that there's a whole cultural side of the pandemic that we don't take into effect. And I think at one time, at one point in the book, you said, you know, we culturally decide when the pandemic is over. In essence, even if the virus hasn't completely run its course we can culturally decide to move on and say it's over. I guess I would love to hear your thoughts about how you think culture kind of influenced the way the pandemic affected us specifically, I know, you mentioned that there are, you know, the three shortcomings we have, that kind of made us unprepared, which would be the denigration of science, the downgrading of expertise and the loss of nuance, but also that there was an inability for policymakers to really be able to comprehend exponential growth, these are all things that kind of came along with us culturally, that seemed to kind of I guess, subvert our potential for reacting in an unnecessary way to the pandemic,


you're highlighting one particular argument, which is that the, the germ happened to strike us at a moment, when, in our society, at least, and many other societies too, there was what I would describe as a sort of thinning out of our intellectual discourse. You know, we were vulnerable, because of the limitations in our ability to talk among ourselves in an effective way. And you, like already identified some of the problems in our society, one you didn't mention is political polarization. You know, the fact that we're very particularly polarized right now. And economic inequality, is that a century long, high political polarization is it I think, a near century high. There is the denigration of science. So there's an endless problem in American society, but it's particularly acute right now, partly because scientists are seen as some kind of elites, you know, it's I think it's a little bit like seeing federal judges as somehow elite, you know, like, which is a bit nuts. I mean, you know, we don't think of judges as, as elites, you know, as somehow trying to feed at the public trough and exploit other people, you know, we just think of them as umpires in a way. And I know I'm partial, because I'm a scientist. But you know, I like to think that scientists, at least when science is functioning properly, and of course, there's a long history of science not functioning properly, of course, unfortunately. But in principle, we're just supposed to be empires, right? We're just supposed to be truth, seeking a truth seeking enterprise that is simply trying to figure out what is true and what is not, as with as little ideology as possible. So there's a kind of denigration of science. There is a anti elitism that I mentioned, which is also a bit odd if you really begin to think about it, because because people like expertise in all walks of life, you know, when you have a plumbing disaster in your house, you want an expert plumber, or a mechanic, or a cabinet maker, or a surgeon, or a scientist, you know, you you want to say I need an expert epidemiologist, right now I need someone who has spent their whole life studying respiratory pandemics, you know, that's what we need right now. And it's miraculous that we have, you know, we've organized society to be able to provide us with that expertise. So why we have this antipathy to expertise is another thing. And then finally, and maybe most troublingly in some ways is, is our loss of capacity for nuance, you know, things you're with me or you're against me, it's black or white, you know, it's it's, people are not willing or able to tolerate Shades of Grey, you know, in political topics, in in topics where there's not certainty, you know, like, what exactly is happening with this problem, you know, that? We don't know exactly. It's subtle, you know, it's nuanced. It's difficult. It's, here's, on the one hand, here's the evidence that masks work. On the other hand, here's the evidence that masks do not work. How are we going to sort this out? You know, it's not, you know, we need to study the problem and have be capable of having conflicting evidence and process it's all of these capacities. You see, all of these problems are apparent in our society right now. And this is the moment when this once in a century event, and these events do happen every century. I mean, plagues are an ancient threat to human beings. There's no reason why we in the 21st century United States should be spared. plagues have been afflicting human beings for 1000s of years. But it struck us at this moment of vulnerability. Plus it I would argue very incompetent leadership at the level of the White House, I mean, just stunningly bad. And and some people say well, other European countries also did poorly like Italy or England. Yes, but You know, that's hardly an excuse Germany and Greece did pretty well. So to New Zealand and Taiwan, and of course, their islands, I understand but, you know, and where the United States of America, you know, I have high hopes for our country, I would like us to do better than we've done. And, you know, I think, I think you can lay some of that blame at the foot of the citizenry. I think the American people were not called to action, they were not called to sacrifice, they were not briefed properly on what was the nature of the threat, they were not invited to be mature and resolute. And therefore, I blame partly I blame the citizenry, but mostly I blame our leadership that didn't, you know, step up to do perform these requisite duties. So, so yes, these this, these, this cultural terrain was was ripe for this particular kind of threat and the virus, and then I'll shut up, the virus also had a number of fiendish properties.


As luck would have it, it made it especially difficult to have a clear conversation, it wasn't just exponential growth, which is difficult for any human being to understand. And, and it's always hard in epidemics, because the experts are sounding the alarm. But the person on the street, here's the expert, and goes and looks around, says there's nothing's happening. You know, the expert is saying, We've gone from two to four to you know, to eight to 16, to 32, to 64, to 128, to 256, etc, deaths. And the people are saying, Yeah, but you know, nothing is happening, right? And nothing is happening, and nothing's happening. And nothing's happening until all of a sudden, a lot happens, right? Yeah. But then it's too late. And so it's very difficult to sound the alarm when the underlying process is exponential. Because it doesn't comport with our intuitions often about the world. But um, so I lost the train of thought there for a moment. So there's this exponential growth thing, and there's the Oh, the virus, the virus has these intrinsic properties. That are sneaky. Let me give you a couple of illustrations. So first of all, the virus kills about 1% of people that develop symptoms from the virus now varies by age, hugely, as everyone knows by now. But nevertheless, in a population, like the United States, about 1% of the people who get it and get symptoms from it will die. Now that's really bad from the point of view of a pathogen. And just to be clear, any young people listening, it's true that you're at less risk of death. And I as a parent of people in their 20s, and actually a boy who's 10, I, I'm very relieved that if my children were to get sick, they're unlikely to die. But you have to understand that death is uncommon in young people from any cause. So if you get if you're in your 20s, and you get this virus, you increase your risk of death by 30, or 50%. I mean, that's awful, right? I mean, you should not just not care about such a change in your risk of dying, you know, from getting a virus that you maybe could avoid getting,


and there's long term effects that we also questionable, right?


Yes, there's also the disability, the potential disability, probably five times as before, this thing is over between half a million and a million Americans are going to die of this virus. And by before it's over, I mean, in a year or two, and probably five times as many as die will have some kind of long term disability and I'm not talking about long COVID here, you know, which is I'm saying you can have a short or long course of the disease and then you get better but now your body has been disabled, you have renal insufficiency, or, or pulmonary fibrosis or neurological deficits or cardiac problems that lasts forever. This is some long term disability so so five times as many as die will probably be disabled. So this is quite a serious virus anyway. So about 1% of the people will die. Now here's the thing about that. That's enough to be a serious disease, but it's not so deadly, let's say as bubonic plague or smallpox or cholera, which can or Ebola, you know, which can kill 3050 80% of the people that afflict everyone would be taking that seriously, right. So it's much more deadly than the flu, but it's not as deadly as those other viruses and bacteria. And so, so people don't take it as seriously as they should. That's one fiendish quality, it's like in the perfect sweet spot of lethality, this virus. Another subtle thing about this virus is its protein manifestations. The fact that the virus can do everything from infect you and give you no symptoms, to mild symptoms, to serious symptoms to kill, you can do all of those things. And it can afflict your GI tract or your pulmonary system or your neurological system, and many parts of your body. So variety of symptoms, in addition to a variety of severity of symptoms, it's very protein, the virus actually makes it very difficult to have a public conversation about it, especially if you're not capable of nuance. So let me give you an illustration of this. Imagine that there are two worlds in world A there are 1000 people and 10 of them get seriously sick with the virus and one of them dies. That's population a okay Population B, you again have 1000 people, 100 of them get sick, 90 of them are mildly sick 10 of them get seriously sick again, just like in world A and one of them dies just like in world A, that's world B. in which of these two worlds Is it better? So in world in world, a 10% of the people who get the infection die, and then world b 1% of the people get the infection die. Which of these two worlds is a better world to be in?


I would probably say a right because you have less people being impacted on though in the long scale with a lesser symptoms.


Yes, that's exactly right. World a, in because, well B has is the same as world A plus another 90 people who have a mild illness plus suffering, yes, plus other suffering. So it's a higher disutility state, right. But the problem is, is that to everyday observer, superficially, world B might look better, because only 1% of the people that got it, that's the world we're in, you see, ironically, if this virus had a narrower range of symptoms, and therefore seem to kill a larger fraction of people, we would be taking it more seriously. So they're all of these sneaky features of the virus that intersect with are the cultural moment that we are in, that have made it a very bad and difficult challenge for us, unfortunately,


yeah, that nuance doesn't make for a good meme, does it? No,


and you need three minutes to explain it to someone, once you explain that they understand it, but they need to be patient. It's not like, you know, virus is not a, you know, virus is nothing, you know, it's it's fake news, you know, forget the virus, ignore it, or, you know, it's a calamity. You know, it's it's in between, you know, you have to kind of tolerate a little conversation about it.


Do you think that there's a higher level of divisiveness and less nuance because I, you know, I'm not an expert neuroscientist by any measure. But from my understanding, you know, part of our discuss mechanism responds very heavily to rancid food and to germs. And that disgust mechanism also tends to make us more morally conservative, it makes us more, you know, reclusive, because we want to retreat away from a disease. And I can't help but wonder if, when something like this comes up, we all tend to retreat into ideology as a way to protect ourselves from viral ideas and a viral, you know, virus.


I don't know. I mean, I know the research you're alluding to. And I've lost track of where that research is. You're also alluding to Jonathan heights in very important work righteous minds, and the different bases for moral assessment. And there are some ways in which liberals and libertarians and conservatives differ in what they privilege, what are the moral foundations of their reasoning. And disgust is a very important foundation for conservatives. And there has been some experimental work that looks at whether that notion of disgust can translate it into ideas, like you know, we're, let's say, we evolved to be disgusted by feces, but, you know, maybe we, that capacity for disgust, let's say is now translated to be disgusted by concepts, you know, like infidel religions or something, you know, we really didn't involve to be disgusted by, by ideas, you know, but now we evolved this capacity for discuss which we then apply to ideas and so on. And that literature is a little complicated. And, you know, there have been a variety studies going in different directions, and I haven't stayed completely on top of it so so, so I'll be loath to to make an unknown statement about, about political ideology and response to the virus. But it is true that many of the responses to the pandemic have unfortunately been politicized in our society. And if for example, mask wearing came to be seen as a symbol of virtue and neighborliness, or a symbol of liberty and bravery,


and predominantly in the Western world, yes.


Not just primarily the United States that Germany they don't have this axis. I mean, we, you know, we, in our country, it assumed this symbolism, and which is nuts, if you think about it, I mean, the the mask is just a, it's just a physical barrier for droplets. I mean, you know, it's just kind of, we can discuss its properties and you know, have a conversation about it, we don't have to endow it with all of this symbolism. And as I said, other countries do not endow it with a symbolism, right. So it's very just culturally distinctive, that we do this. And incidentally, some of your listeners may or may not know, but there were the same debates 100 years ago in 1918. There were anti masking leagues they were people who said lock them up if they don't wear their masks and other people say, you know, I'm an American give me freedom. I'm not going to allow just absurd recapitulation of the same damn foolishness 100 years ago. And so we learn nothing, actually in some ways. But anyway so so you I think certain things did become politicized in our society. And let's not forget, even vaccination has some kind of, I won't say political overlay, but there's some kind of, you know, ideological, you know, there's conspiracy theories about anti vaxxers, you know, have, we can discuss the scientific evidence for and against vaccine safety and utility. But that's a far cry from a lot of anti Vax belief systems. Right? And, and so, you know, there are many different aspects of public health response, you know, we have to remember as well that oftentimes, I was one of my advisors when I was a medical student at Harvard Medical School was a very famous medical historian by the name of Alan Brandt, who wrote a classic book called no magic bullet about syphilis and venereal disease and gonorrhea around this, actually, in the 20th century, but especially around the Second World War. And, you know, these are just germs that happened to spread through sexual contact. But you know, of course, because we're stupid, you know, we endowed that with a special moral qualities and, and, you know, these germs were seen through political, cultural and moral lenses. The same thing happened with HIV, incidentally, you know, if the HIV it was serendipity that HIV happened to take root amongst homosexuals in our society, if it hadn't, homosexuals would have been immune. Right? It would have been a plague among heterosexuals and homosexuals would have been like, well, this is great, you know, we're not getting infected. And you know it because these populations were relatively isolated. Of course, there are people who are bisexual have sex with both genders, but, but especially in the 1980s, that was, that was even less so but they were relatively separate. And while the virus did spread from the homosexual to the heterosexual or could have spread vice versa, it was just serendipity that it started in this population that was interacting with each other, this group is having sex with each other, and this group is having sex with each other. And, and then bang, you know, it was endowed with all these moral judgments, you know, the right God's punishment, all this stupidity, which just a germ, you know, it's just infecting us, you know, it's, it's killing us, you know, this other living thing is killing us. There's a little debate about whether viruses are living, that's another whole topic for the sake of argument. Now we can assume they're living but anyway. So So yes, we're stupid this way. You know, we endow but I should say, the beliefs about the moral freighted pneus of disease, are widely seen in the anthropological literature and in historical literature. And in fact, the book, Apollo zero, begins with a story about, which is the beginning of the Iliad, when the god Apollo, who was both a healer and the bringer of disease, that punishes the Greeks with a plague. Right? So disease was seen in infectious disease in particular was seen as divine punishment, often for moral failings or, or wrongs. So it's not unique to us that we endow these pathogens with ideological and moral meanings.


Yeah, of course, I'm wondering what your thoughts are in terms of the immediate versus intermediate impacts, socially, psychologically, economically, and if you kind of have any insights into what things might now ripple out from this experience in this time period for us?


Well, I mean, yes, or no, I have some ideas to offer you. Um, I would say that there are three, we can divide the pandemic experience into three phases. First, there's the immediate period, which we're in now, which I think will stretch into early 2022, to last about two years. And, and that's when we'll reach herd immunity, which is this important epidemiological milestone, where the, the epidemic force of the pathogen has now abated. The virus is still there, it can still affect us, it can still kill us, but it doesn't cause big outbreaks anymore. Because enough people have become immune, such that the virus can't really create these epidemics. I can explain that more if you're interested. But but so but to get there that we go there are two routes to getting there. First of all, we get there through vaccination, and we need at least 50% of the population to be immune, probably more now with this new strain of the virus that's more infectious. And and so right now, probably 14, or 16, or 18% of Americans have so far been exposed naturally to the virus, and we need to get to 50%. And we've invented this vaccine, which is miraculous, we are the first generation of human beings ever to have confronted this ancient threat of a plague, who has who has been able to in real time invent a specific countermeasure in the form of a vaccine. It's unbelievable what we've done. But we now need to manufacture hundreds of millions of doses and distribute them which is not easy and most importantly, persuade a minimum of 50% of people to take The vaccine. And all of that's going to take time, I would say at least a year, you know, till the end of 2021, the beginning of 2022. And meanwhile, the virus is still spreading, right, and it's gonna continue to kill us and immunize us. That is they will get it and acquired immunity from surviving a natural infection. So if we don't reach herd immunity artificially because of vaccination, we'll reach it naturally because of natural spread of the virus. Either way, we'll take about a year, but come 2022, we'll have reached this important milestone. And the epidemiological and biological force of the pandemic will be behind us. Again, to be clear, the virus is still going to be there and still circulate and still cause misery. But we're not going to have this huge numbers of people dying every day, and so on. But then we have to recover from the clinical from a sort of from a psychological, social and economic shock. Let's not forget, 10s of millions of Americans are out of work, millions of businesses have closed, millions of children have lost days of schooling. We've had enormous restructuring in our economy, people have moved from cities to rural areas and suburban areas, and on and on, all of these changes have occurred, it'll take time for us to recover from that plus, as we were talking about earlier, there are all these people who will have disability. If I think as I said, between half a million and a million Americans are going to die of this by the time this thing is over. And incidentally, there'll be a third wave of this a year from now it'll be the wave will be lower in amplitude because of the vaccine. But there will be a third wave there, these respiratory pandemics come in waves. So by the time this whole thing is over half a million to a million Americans will have died five times as many, let's say two and a half million Americans minimum will have some kind of disability, probably we still don't know, because only the passage of time will tell. But um, but only 750,000 Americans have end stage renal disease, for example, just to benchmark you. So two and a half million Americans with some kind of disabilities is serious, it's a lot of people. So we're gonna take it's gonna take time to cope with those clinical impacts the social and psychological impacts the child children impacts economic impacts, we are borrowing money at an incredible pace against the future, you know, we'll be at great risk for inflation, for example. So So that'll take a couple of years, that Intermediate Period to get through that and then come 2024 I think we're going to enter the post pandemic period. Now typically what happens during times of play as people become more religious, you know, there are no atheists in foxholes. And we're seeing that in the United States right now. They become more abstemious and more risk averse, they stop spending their money, which we're seeing United States savings rates are way up. They they avoid social interactions, which of course we're seeing right people you know, are staying at home, they don't interact.


And what will happen come 2024 when we're finally beyond the biological and socio economic impact of the virus is that all of those trends will reverse religiosity will decline. People will relentlessly seek out social opportunities in nightclubs and bars and restaurants and sporting events and musical concerts and political rallies, maybe some sexual licentiousness, for example, you know, people cooped up for a long time, they'll start spending their money there, their risk aversion will return I mean, so the risk aversion will decline, their risk taking will rise, joie de vivre, we'll be back I think in a way we're likely to have a kind of roaring 20s of the 21st century similar to the roaring 20s we had of the 20th century after the 1918 pandemic 100 years ago, which of course, it was conflated with the World War One. So it's complicated but but even if you look at other examples, for example, after outbreaks of bubonic plague in in Europe in medieval times, when the plague was finally over, unsurprisingly, people partied, so. So I think it's likely we'll have something like that there'll be an efflorescence of the arts, a kind of entrepreneurial zeal there'll be a number of features of our society I think, which will reflect the kind of release that will experience now that you know, the pandemic is over


and you think that diet nice and revelry will be like, 2024. Is that what you said?


Well, I mean, I, you know, I Dyson is an excellent word for this. Yeah. I think plus or minus, I mean, let's it's not gonna be and it's not gonna be abrupt, you know, it's gonna be kind of slow, you know, it'll grow on itself. But yes, I think we're gonna see some kind of Bacchanalia, you know, after, after, you know, when it's over.


And do you see from the social perspective, given the work you've done previously, and I'm sure are still doing Do you think we're gonna see impacts from this isolation upon people and farther impacts like, I think in the book you talked about, women are staying home more to take care of the kids since the kids are home from school. You talk about potential for kids to even be you know, traumatized having an adverse childhood experiences, and a lot of adults right now I think are dealing with depression. I think suicide rates have gone up pretty much much across the board, do you think we're gonna see a lot of issues for word psych going forward psychologically due to kind of the isolation? The fear of this period?


Well, I don't know how long lasting they'll be. I mean, for the kids that are being harmed, yes, unfortunately and adults to to some extent, but I think the adults will recover and i i hope most of the kids will eventually recover to but yes, it's a let's not forget many, many Americans will lose loved ones will lose their livelihoods. Right. Many people lose their way of life. You know, this is what plagues do. They, they deprive us of lives, livelihoods, and ways of life. And, you know, and that's challenging, honestly, psychologically. And, you know, I think the social isolation I mean, in my house, at least, I recently learned the word you probably know the expression cabin fever, right? You know, when you're, yeah, like, you know, so we can even get Cabin Fever in my household. We've been cooped up here for coming on a year. I'm feeling it. Yeah, I'm feeling well, there's another expression I did not know, which I recently learned, which is Jackie wacky. You know, you've been in a shack cooped up in a shack and you becoming whacked. So Jackie wacky, yeah, we're getting a little wacky, wacky around here, too. And? And maybe that's an Australian expression? It sounds like it would be I don't know. But um, yeah, so I think there will there are some serious, you know, but I don't think I think, you know, I think we will recover. I mean, one of the things that's really important to understand is that plagues always end right in the end. And, you know, we hear you and I, if we were having this conversation a year ago, we wouldn't have been saying, Oh, my God, isn't it amazing the way our interactions in our society have been shaped by 1000s of years of pandemic disease, we would just think this is normal life that we were having a year ago. And so I think, you know, at some period of time in the future, people will will again forget, you know, what it is that we experienced this This is, of course, masterfully captured in canoes, the plague, right. I mean, he, he, you know, he talks exactly about this thing, you know, which everyone rejoices and forgets until, you know, the plane comes back, which it it does, and then they'll doubt that it's back. Yes, of course, which is again, we did to write the denial for the White House on down large fractions of the population. And this is a very human but very mature response. Denial is very common response is people don't want to believe this thing is happening. And but that that's unwise, it does not constructive to engage in denial. So, but yes, that's also since time immemorial. And this is the other thing, all of these sideshows to the pandemic, this example we just talked about denial, or or grief, you know, plagues are a time of grief, you know, people grieve the loss of their livelihoods, their jobs, or their loved ones, and so on. or blame, you know, the it's always plagues bring the blame of others, you know, so they try be we blame the gays, you know, or the Haitians or the drug users or whatever. And in in Kobani plague is to blame the Jews, you know, they would round up 1000s of Jews, and they would put them to death. Because they, you blame them, you know, what's absurd? Pope Clement, the six actually, astonishingly, during the first outbreak in the night in 1347, or something like that? I don't have the date. Exactly. Right. But proximately then, actually, if you read him, he was unbelievable. For a Catholic Pope. He said, We need you people must stop killing the Jews. Because he said, if they had been guilty of these, these accusations of having deliberately poisoned us with the plague and killing us, then of course, it would be okay for us to put them to death. But, but there's no evidence that they have and furthermore, he said, they die in equal numbers to us. You know, this is a very logical argument. He's like, now why would they? You know, why would they let loose this play that is killing them and the equal numbers is killing us. It doesn't make much sense Pope climate the six is arguing in 1347. And you're like, Good for him. You know, you're very humane man. Actually, in many other ways, he is a great personal risk, he took care of people who were sick, he he observed that the caretakers were dying in great numbers. For example, the death of healthcare workers, to cities writes about this in 430 bc that the plague of Athens you know that the doctors are all dying. So this comes back to so so blame, grief. The death of healthcare workers, denial, and lies, you know, all of these qualities, all of these things that are typical of plagues, unfortunately, have been typical of the covid 19 pandemic in our society as well. And I would have hoped honestly, despite the deep humanity of these manifestations, I would have hoped that you know, as a wealthy, modern information, free democracy, information free I mean the free flow of information, not app information, you know that we would have done better in some regards. And, you know, we haven't done as well as I would have liked.


Unfortunately, it seems like it should have been a case that we had a common enemy, if anything.


This also has been observed in the past this notion that is playing a great equalizer. And in some sense, yes, the germ doesn't care who we are, it doesn't care if you're rich or poor, black or white, or young or old, actually, this term does care if you're young or old, but you know, and it kills us indiscriminately. And you would think that we would feel sorrow for our fellow humans and recognize our, our shared vulnerability, and that it would heighten our ability to work together. And this idea is also an old idea has been discussed for 1000s of years, by commentators that it brings out goodness in humans, because of their shared vulnerability. And then as a society of shared action to respond to it, you know, we have to work together to fight this germ. On the other hand, it's an all that's true in some sense, but it's also true that the germs are not equal opportunity killers, I mean, they kill the vulnerable among us, they kill the poor, and the sick and the elderly. And, and, and marginalize the prisoners and the hungry and marginalized communities, you know, the week. And so, so it's it's not quite an equalizer either, honestly. So it's it's nuanced. You have to have nuance to really talk about this topic. Well,


yes. Speaking of nuance, I want to ask you a few questions from the community before I let you go. But I want to close with one point, do you think there is any particular nuance that needs to be discussed more about COVID? Maybe like a subtle data point that people are overlooking that you would wish was brought more to the public attention?


Not that I can think of right now. I mean, I want people to understand that the I hope most most listeners probably in this audience will get that the vaccine is good, but not perfect, right? So there's a nuance there, you know, even the trials only show that it's 95% effective, so you can still get the disease even if you should be vaccinated. Absolutely. But you know, it's not black or white, like you either are immune or you're not immune, you know, well, you're 95%, like, unlikely to get the disease. And, you know, so anyway, that's one little nuance.


And now we're going to be taking questions from our global su community, where more than 25,000, innovators, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders come together to learn, connect and take action. If you'd like to be part of this talented and ambitious community and ask the podcast guest questions of your very own, simply go to su.org and click Sign up from the menu. And now back to our guest. If you can't I just have a few questions. I'm gonna pull some from the community real quick, and we'll try to get you out of here in time.


People knew in advance that you and I were going to be speaking and they send you questions. Yes,


indeed. Yeah. But yeah, so I got a few of them here. I got Eduardo Drake. He asked what you think the social impact is of a synchronous communications such as email, text and social media on society right now,


that's very hard for me to answer because I love asynchronous communication. So synchronous communication is a heavy burden. For me personally, I'd much prefer to be able to text or email someone than to have to be like, right now I have to respond to you immediately. And I'm tempted to say, why did you send me that question? I'll get to it eventually. I don't know. I think, I don't think I think it's important. I'm saying that a synchronous communication is not not wholly new, right? I mean, people used to send messages for 1000s of years, by messengers, and just the time interval was longer, you know, they would send a runner from Athens to Sparta and you know, take a few days and then message would come back or a boat, you know. So, you know, Benjamin Franklin was our minister plenipotentiary. I recently learned what the word plenipotentiary means it means that, that he was empowered to act on behalf of the United States he had, he had, you know, plenty of powers because there was no time for him to send a letter, you know, back to Washington DC to ask, okay, should I or should I not enter into this treaty with the French and then you know, six months later the answer would come back you know, he was endowed with the power to make the decisions. So you know, there was a synchronous communication. So, so I don't understand the full breadth of that question, but I don't think that a synchronous communication is that radical Lee new as to you know, change is quite that much fair.


I think this one is a little along the same lines. Perhaps this is from Lois Dark. You know, Singularity University is all about the similarity where we kind of merge with technology in some ways how to prepare for that this question is, as we reach the singularity point with AI, do you think our probability of cooperation will be enhanced or diminished? Does the influence of algorithms on social media threads, for instance, make us more divided or more threaded together?


I honestly think that depends a lot on how we program the algorithms. We've done a lot of work in my laboratory on this in what we call hybrid systems of humans and machines. We did paper in the journal Nature in 2017, in which we showed that we could create hybrid systems of humans and bots, and we programmed the bots we endow them with what we call dumb AI, very simple programming rules. And because the bots were interspersed among intelligent humans, the bots could afford to be very stupid. They don't need to be super sophisticated, we didn't need to invent super smart AI to replace human cognition. We just needed to invent dumb AI that could supplement human interaction, like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, that just lowers the activation energy makes it easier for things to happen. So these little bots interspersed in the human group, were able to facilitate the ability of the humans to inter interact, cooperate more to coordinate their activities more. So we've done quite a bit of work on this actually, on these hybrid systems of humans and machines. And, and, and what my group is interested in is not human machine interaction, but human human interaction in the presence of machines. A very simple example of this I give is, if you think about digital assistants, like Alexa, they are programmed to be very obedient. So you don't have to say, you know, excuse me, Alexa, I'm very sorry to interrupt you, but please, Would you do me a favor, and you'll tell me what the weather is like tomorrow. Thank you very much, you know, you, you just, you just say Alexa weather, you know, and the machine responds. And in fact, it's programmed to do that, because you would be less likely to want such a digital assistant, if you had to engage in these inane and elaborate, you know, the procedures is where to get information from the device, which you bought. So so but when you bring that device, and then that's fine, you know, you can program the device so that when it interacts human to machine, it has these properties. But what then what happens is when we bring these devices into our homes, as our children, for example, interact with these devices, and they learn to be rude, and then they go to the playground, and they're rude to other children. So the machine the presence of the machine has changed human human interactions, for the worse in that case, but it can also do it for the better. So I think to answer the lowest lowest I think was her name question. I think, what my answer would be it depends on how we endow what kind of how we endow this AI. Whether it will enhance or degrade our capacity for altruism and cooperation. We, we've done quite a lot of experiments with with with Brian's castle, Eddie's lab, and with a couple of graduate students, Sarah cebo, and Margaret Trager, we, we did some experiments with physical robots, where we added physical robots to groups that were solving collective problems. And we showed that if we program the robots to express vulnerability, it enhanced the communication pattern of the humans among themselves, with Hirokazu Rado, who is a former graduate student of mine. Now at CMU, we've done a number of many papers and experiments, looking at how the introduction of bots into human social systems can make them more cooperative, for example, we, it's very difficult to sustain cooperation in groups. And we were able to show that a bot with a simple Bayesian inference engine built into it was actually able to rewire the network around it in a way that enhanced like knitting, making a little web of people in a way that enhanced the cooperation of the of the human group. So so that's would be my answer to that question.


That's fantastic. I really like here in the subtle ways that you can think of AI as the glue, and less of like a divisive structure, I suppose. more nuanced, more nuance. See, we have a lot of social questions here. We have one more social one more pandemic one, and then we're done. Okay. I have Jonathan kolber. He asked, What is it? Do you think that makes society strive towards cooperation and support, rather than a society that is just based on people stuck in a shared location, fighting for the primacy of ideologies?


Well, that there's a lengthy answer to that in the book blueprint, the evolutionary origins of a good society published in 2019. There you go. And I as a whole chapter on the emergence of cooperation, this is an interest very deep. I mean, Darwin was flummoxed by this topic of cooperation, the emergence of cooperation. And there are circumstances under which cooperation emerges a very simple example would be repeated interactions. So if I have ongoing if I have a one off interaction with you, there might be no motivation for me to be nice to you and cooperate. But if I I've repeated interactions across time that I scratch your back now you'll scratch my back later. And that's a kernel of an answer to the origins of cooperation, because in fact, we can achieve more when we cooperate with others, and we will, we don't. Now, it turns out that the benefits of good cooperation require, of course, social interaction. And when I come near you in order to achieve those benefits, as we talked about earlier, I expose myself for example, to the risk of germs, or to the risk of violence, you might, you might steal from me or murder me. So. So what's happened across evolution is that natural selection has equipped us with a set of qualities, such that the benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs. So we've evolved all of these sensibilities and these ways of making friendships. In fact, the typological architecture of human social networks, the mathematical structure of human social interactions, I believe, has been shaped in part by natural selection, so as to make sure that the benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs. So that's a partial answer. But if he wants a long answer, there's a whole book about that topic


that links in the show notes. Yeah, we'd look at that. And then lastly, we have Daniel zerit, set ski, I believe. And he says, should we expect that with our modern ways of living, that we need to now see pandemics as a natural expectation that is going to become the norm?


Well, as I've been arguing, in fact, it has been the norm you just, you know, this this unnatural this way we've been living which is seems so unnatural, and alien. It plays are not new to our species. They're just new to us. I mean, we think this is nuts. But it's not it's been happening for a long time, even respiratory pet forget going back 1000s of years and looking at smallpox and bubonic plague and cholera and HIV and everything else. Just look at respiratory pandemics. They'd come every 10 or 20 years, we've had a respiratory pandemic, and we've had a serious one every 50 or 100 years. We just happen to be alive during a once in a century event, which is awful. Now there is some evidence with climate change, and increasing contact between humans and animals as a result of climate change. So we're encroaching on their habitats. They're coming into our part of the world that they're increasing zoonotic diseases spread from animals to humans and most of the, you know, Ebola and West Nile virus, and Coronavirus, and all of these influenza viruses, these all come from animals and come from wild animals or they can come from domesticated animals. There's a whole that's a whole topic also, incidentally, but but yes, there. So on the narrow issue of is it likely that we will be seeing more pandemics over the next 100 or 200 years, many people predict we will see an uptick compared to the last 1000 years. But it is not the case that we haven't been having pandemics. In fact, we have been having pandemics for for 1000s of years.


There you go. Nicholas, I really, really, really appreciate you taking the time to sit down and have a chat with me today, man. And now we're going to take a moment for a short message about our membership for organizations, which you can find by going to su.org and clicking organizations in the menu.


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