Big Challenges Require Bold Visions

Unless we experience a major calamity resetting the world's economy to a much lower output, it is a foregone conclusion that the world will miss the CO2 target to limit global warming to 1.5C. This drives a slow motion multi-faceted disaster exacerbated by the ongoing growth in global population, which puts additional stress on the environment.  Unsurprisingly, we are in the midst of earth's sixth massive extinction event.

It just takes three charts to paint the picture:

1) World Population Growth

2) Temperature Increase

3) Species Extinction

We shouldn't delude ourselves in believing that our species is safe from adding itself to the extinction list. The next decades are pivotal in stopping the damage we do to our planet. Given our current technologies, we have every reason to believe that we can stabilize population growth and replace fossil fuel dependent technologies with CO2 neutral ones, but the processes that are already set in motion will produce societal challenges of unprecedented proportion.

Population growth and the need for arable land keeps pushing people ever closer to formerly isolated wildlife.  Most often with just fatal consequences for the latter, but sometimes the damage goes both ways.  HIV, Ebola and bird flu, for instance, are all health threats that were originally contracted from animal reservoirs (zoonosis), and we can expect more such pathogens, many of which will not have been observed before. At the same time, old pathogens can easily resurface. Take tuberculosis, for instance. Even in an affluent country with good public health infrastructure, such as Canada, we see over a thousand new cases each year, and, as in other parts of the world, multi-resistant TB strains are on the rise.

Immunization and health management require functioning governmental bodies. In a world that will see ever more refugee crises and civil strife, the risk for disruptive pandemics will massively increase. The recent outbreak of Ebola is a case study in how such mass infections can overwhelm the medical infrastructure of developing countries, and should serve as a wake-up call to the first world to help establish a global framework that can manage these kinds of global health risks. The key is to identify emerging threats as early as possible, since the chance of containment and mitigation increases by multitudes the sooner actions can be taken.

Such a framework will require robust and secure data collection and dissemination capabilities and advanced predictive analytics that can build on all available pooled health data as well as established medical ontologies. Medical doctor and bioinformatic researcher Andrew Deonarine has envisioned such a system that he has dubbed Signa.OS, and he has assembled a stellar team including members from his former alma mater Cambridge, the UBC, as well as Harvard, where he will soon start post-graduate work. Any such system should not be designed with just our current hardware in mind, but with the technologies that will be available within the decade.  That is why quantum computer accelerated Bayesian networks are an integral part of the analytical engine for Signa.OS. We are especially excited to also have Prof. Marco Scutari from Oxford join the Signa.OS initiative, whose work in Bayesian network training in R is stellar, and served as a guiding star for our python implementation.

Our young company,, which I recently started with Robert R. Tucci, could not have wished for a more meaningful research project to prove our technology.

[This video was produced by Andrew for entering the MacArthur challenge.]


2 thoughts on “Big Challenges Require Bold Visions

    1. Thanks Elke! Much appreciated. Much of the credit belongs to Robert (Bob) Tucci though. He has been doing most of the heavy lifting.

      Also very much appreciate that you help spread the word on Twitter!

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