How 350+ PhDs and AI Researchers are Banding Together to Fight the Corona Outbreak

March 27th 2020
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@arturkiulianArtur Kiulian

Disclaimer
This is a story about how I’ve published a cry for help on my Linkedin less than a week ago and somehow found myself coordinating a group of 350 PhDs and AI specialists that are working 24/7 without any compensation to help humanity fight coronavirus.
If this doesn’t fascinate you as a phenomenon, then please stop reading and get back to watching Netflix. This is a story about how 350 people are refusing to watch TV and scroll Facebook feeds, they are making a real difference and impact, right now.
It’s a story of how global community is coming together and helping spread the word, be it an investor from a top VC fund
or a person that got laid off and has nothing to do:
So… why are we doing this?
We are all in this together and we are living through unique time when every single country is equal, when every single layer of society is susceptible to the common enemy. Yes, Tom Hanks is as equal as a middle-eastern dictator, Justin Trudeau is as equal as Trump and yes, you are as equal as 1% of the wealthiest.
Suddenly nationalism doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter if you support capitalism or socialism, if you are democrat or republican, if you are a legal or illegal immigrant, it just doesn’t matter.
Both the epidemic itself and the resulting economic crisis are global problems. They can be solved effectively only by global co-operation. First and foremost, in order to defeat the virus we need to share information globally. That’s the big advantage of humans over viruses. © Yuval Harrari
Though some people are still skeptical and are strong believers in the conspiracy, comparing it to ordinary flu by the numbers of deaths and say that people were dying from many other diseases and no one ever cared.
And yes, people were dying from many different diseases every day and it didn’t seem like everyone was dropping what they were doing and was immediately jumping into research to help with diabetes/HIV/etc.
(footnote: why didn’t we care? why shouldn’t we care??)
So what’s different now? It’s quite simple and I don’t need any flatten curve graphs to explain this. Even though everyone seems to love those graphs and pretends that’s a cure/silver bullet to solve the current crisis. For those believers, here’s a not so controversial advice, it’s not a solution.
(for fans of “Idiocracy” movie)
It’s an attempt of our brains to keep us sane and pretend we are safe assuming everyone is a responsible, diligent and disciplined individual that understands highly complex long terms effects and 2nd/3rd order consequences of every single action that is taken (thank you, Ray Dalio).
See? No one cares about things like virality, it’s too complex and harder to understand/model than two basic curves that literally scream at you
“we know how to solve this, it’s actually very easy, see the graph, don’t you see it? it actually moves and… it’s got some green electrolytes!”
Even google doesn’t care about virality, it actually explains what virality is in terms of internet memes… c’mon guys?
And it’s really all about virality. And also novelty, complexity and lack of our ability to explain this emerging common enemy. There is literally ZERO understanding. Everything that you hear in the news is an educated guess combined with statistically irrelevant data.
And you know, I don’t actually blame governments, this is a product of the broken system that we are observing as we sit at home quarantining ourselves to boredom. And god bless the US government because it actually acknowledges it and is really trying to fix this mess.
And that’s exactly why WhiteHouse in cooperation with Allen Institute of AI (backed by Microsoft co-founder) decided to reach out to us. Not me personally, but to the whole world of AI researchers like me, to seek help and get that precious brainpower of ours.
What happened next is history. I can’t explain it, I can’t model it and I certainly wasn’t ready for it. Still not ready as I’m carving out a few mins out of another 20h workday to finish this article.
Timeline to impress you with some numbers…

Day 1: I talked to 10 people, had 15 calls.

Discovered covid-19 Kaggle challenge and my main learning was that there are so many hardcore machine learning engineers that are willing to help but they have no clue what to do. I decided to help shape that structure and bridge the gap between general questions like “What are the risk factors of covid-19” and technical formulation of the machine learning problem.

Day 2: I talked to 30 people, had 40+ calls.

Realized I can’t do it anymore and I’m not the smartest person to help. Decided to create a trello board and slack and actually project manage this impressive chaos.

Day 3: I talked to 60 people, stopped counting calls.

Realized that the core focus should be something interactive and something that would produce visual results. We’ve decided to score 10 existing tasks to focus on the top 3 based on our subjective reasoning and immediate impact.

Day 4: the group had 150 members.

Something crazy started happening, more self-organization started to emerge, some non-technical people started helping me manage others, we’ve started realizing that we have some new form of organization that is actually getting stuff done, quite effectively. Someone would formulate a task, go to bed and wake up to a completed task by some random stranger from Australia, how much more powerful can this become?

Day 5: the group had 200 members

We bought the domain and quickly mocked up a website to expose ourselves as a group, not just a random collective of couple hundred geeks. Who knew all possible domains including “corona” are all taken by domain hoarders…

Day 6: the group had 250 members

We’ve prepared some external communication pieces because people started wondering what exactly are we and what’s the point. As you can imagine not the easiest task when most of the team are highly intelligent but super introverted individuals. But we made it happen, check it out.

Day 7: we are now 350 members strong.

Some structure is emerging, we are tackling 4 tasks that we’ve identified as most feasible to help with and we now have individual teams working on those. We now have communications team that is integrating medical experts, we are working with both independent researchers and organizations, and we are now the largest independent organization with the strongest pool of highly technical and highly motivated talent that is tackling COVID-19 data analysis.

Wait, what’s going on? is this a cult? don’t you have a job?

It definitely feels like a cult, how else do you explain people spending so much time together solving things they have no clue about and trying to think beyond their typical 9–5 responsibility. Ignoring families, ignoring their kids, not sleeping and grinding through unstructured, highly complex and often depressing data on statistics of mortality...
But here’s a thing, we are believers, we are those crazy ones and we get things done, much faster than any other company or team. People from NASA/Intel/Amazon are joining us and sometimes I question myself if this is all a weird dream of mine or something? but it’s real and it seems like the most intelligent and proactive people are self-organizing around us.
People are even asking us to give them materials to request dedicated volunteering time from their organization. Honestly, we have no clue how to do that yet, but we will.
And of course, nothing is perfect. There is a lot of frustration, with the lack of structure and process, the inability of other companies/organizations to move as fast as we need to and simply because no one has ever built such a fast moving structure that is fully distributed across the globe, across hundreds of different disciplines, professional and cultural backgrounds. And the one that is solving extremely complex problems in a short timeframe. Priorities, organizational issues, timezone management, communication protocols… It’s taking us a week to ask for computational resources from Amazon/Google and other giants and they are trying their best but are unable to move as fast (pls help us here if you can).

- Is it just for AI geeks?

Not really. We’ve got people of diverse backgrounds and skillsets. And we need more, way MORE.

- Is it just for geeks in general then?

Not really. We’ve got professors of nuclear physics (pretty cool huh).
We’ve got psycholinguists?!
We’ve got impact investors…
We’ve got all kinds of PhDs, you name it!

- But do you have any medical experts or are you just coding?

- So are you saying anyone can help?

That’s exactly how it is. And even more importantly, we are currently severely understaffed with non-technical talent. We are literally 3–6 people that manage 300+ full time, as you can imagine we barely sleep and have any rest, but we are feeding off the energy and motivation keeps coming.
- Soo… you didn’t answer the main question, don’t you have a job?
Yes, we all have jobs. For now. The right question to ask is if YOU will have a job soon. Because the current economic crisis suggests we won’t.
No matter how skilled you are, no matter which field you are working in. It’s no longer just restaurant workers, uber drivers or cruise ship employees. It’s all of us and everyone is affected.
And if you haven’t been affected by the wave of layoffs, you certainly have a friend who has been. It sucks.
anonymous data from Blind app
It all started 2 weeks ago when entrepreneurs and business owners entered the cash preservation stage in attempts to save their businesses. And it all spiraled. The wheels of economic machine started to spin in a negative direction. Unfortunately, many were not prepared at all.
anonymous data from various entrepreneur communities supporting each other in tough times
And this will keep spiraling until all of us will realize, there is no magical trillion dollar package that will save us, you can’t flatten that curve, this money has to come from somewhere…
That’s why we are doing it, because we realize the consequences of passively watching the world falling apart. If anything, it’s a perfect time to rebuild it and make things right.

A new world, new opportunities & new models

Even though it’s going to be tough for a bit, we are seeing something amazing emerging out of this crisis. Self-organization is taken to a completely new level that we’ve never seen before. Some are even comparing it to the war times when researchers like Alan Turing were working 24/7 to crack the codes for intelligence purposes.
It took us less than a week to go from 10 to 300 people. And similar things are happening everywhere across the world. If someone would ask me how much it would take to employ such talent a few months ago, I would say around $100m and next to an impossible chance of gathering such a team even in months of active recruiting. That’s a pretty big number, but does it match up to the potential impact? It doesn’t, if you compare it to $2 trillion of damage the US government alone is about to take on…
2,000,000,000,000 dollars > 100,000,000 dollars

What’s next?

Now that you know what we are doing, you may be wondering how can you help us if we are so smart and have so many people already? and what’s the point of this article at all?
The truth is — we do need YOUR help.
Here are the tasks we are currently working on:
- Help us understand how geography affects virality.
- What do we know about COVID-19 risk factors?
- What is known about transmission, incubation, and environmental stability?
- What do we know about vaccines and therapeutics?
Here are the things we need help with:
CoronaWhy call to action document here
If you feel like joining, go ahead and submit the contact form with “Join” purpose on our website: https://www.coronawhy.org/
Here’s a snippet of what you will experience:
Also, what’s in it for you?
- Get practical experience in a fully global distributed remote team (quite an important skill that is very relevant in the coming era)
- Learn how AI/ML is helping in solving real world scenarios, not detecting cats and dogs
- Solve a billion dollar problem, or a $2 trillion one
- Get volunteer experience on your resume, once a lifetime experience on saving humanity from a deadly virus
- Save lives! Save your family, friends and loved ones!
And if you feel like this article deserves to be read — please help us and share it with your friends on other platforms. That’s a rare moment when AI guys are asking you to help with the same algorithms they are usually creating (what an irony), but that’s a story for another article!
Let’s go!
<iframe src="https://giphy.com/embed/vDZACy278sqT6" width="480" height="260" frameBorder="0" class="giphy-embed" allowFullScreen></iframe><p><a href="https://giphy.com/gifs/page-idiocracy-vDZACy278sqT6">via GIPHY</a></p>
PS: Please do share this article, even if there is 0.00001% chance anyone will see it, please do. The impact of these 10 seconds of your life will be paid back in all the sleepless nights research community can save.
PPS: We got posted on ProductHunt, please jump in to support us.

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