Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
Coronavirus / COVID-19 Containment: A Control Theory Perspective
No, this is not another literary piece on Coronavirus with no concrete takeaways.
In this thought piece, I wish to expand your understanding of the expert advice that is guiding our government’s response to controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.
To expand your understanding of the thinking behind the experts who are advising your nation’s Presidents, Heads of States, and Health Care Officials.
To start, I want to point readers to Edward Bernays, an Austrian-American often referred to as the “father of public relations”, and rightly so as he has advised countless Heads of States, CEOs, and politicians on how to control public sentiment.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”
If you are a Baby Boomer, your lifestyle choices most surely would have been indirectly affected by this one gentleman, who greatly influenced social trends and popular culture.
Let’s focus on one such advice being “propagated” by this group of “largely unseen men.”
Flattening the Coronavirus Curve
You may have seen “Flattening the Curve” circulating in the media on combatting the Coronavirus outbreak.
It is a great marketing piece.
But fails to address the Problem.
The Problem being it is the wrong curve for a novel strain of an infectious disease that is an order of magnitude deadlier than the seasonal flu, and 50% more contagious than Ebola.
Compound that the virus is mutating into deadlier forms (see Iran and Korea), pandemics like COVID-19 do not follow a “normal distribution” like what the media is falsely conveying, but a “power law” distribution.
Why does this matter?
In a power law distribution, the left side of the curve is exponential (spread of disease).
This matters because we have limited medical resources to treat infected patients. The US has about 925,000 hospital beds or 2.8 per 1000 people. California has only 1.8. European countries like Germany have 8. Even South Korea with 12 beds per 1000 got overloaded.
So yes, “Flattening the Curve” is a great marketing piece but it fails to address the problem of how to actually flatten the curve and to what extent it needs to flatten to work with each nation’s medical capacity.
Well, how exactly are our governments planning on Flattening the Curve?
Coronavirus Containment via Negative Feedback Control
Well, according to decades of research and extensive guidelines written by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this is how the U.S. government will respond (take the mainstream media and President Trump’s PR with a grain of salt).
In summary, the 97-page report finds that “Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions” or NPIs are the most effective means to combat any pandemic including the COVID-19 outbreak.
NPIs that you have noticed being rolled out these past three months in what our government and the media as coined “social distancing” (presumably because NPIs is too technical a word for public consumption).
Okay, what is the theory behind NPIs and social distancing?
Well, we have to take a quick detour into math and an area of engineering known as control systems theory.
Yes, I know this sounds complicated and I promise to keep it simple — just one formula.
As a graduate of Cornell University and the University of California at Berkeley, I wrote two theses on control systems theory: “Non-Linear Control of an Autonomous Quadrotor” and “Kalman Filtering of Real-Time GPS and GLONASS Signals”.
This all sounds like theoretical jargon, but control theory affects you every day.
If you have a thermostat to control your apartment’s temperature, there is a control system (albeit very simple) managing this.
If you have a water heater that allows you to “dial-in” a certain water temperature, there is a control system managing this as well.
If you have used cruise control while driving, there is a control managing this as well.
Simply put, control systems theory is a critical part of modern-day life.
Now, let’s reveal the mathematical model / control system that health experts have been using to advise our top government officials.
1️⃣ The Input of this model is the “Coronavirus Viral Curve” (labeled Vin) — this is exponential growth in infections (and consequently death counts) if the government didn’t enforce any “social distancing” policies.
2️⃣ The Output of this model is the “Flattening the Curve” (labeled Vout) — this is what the media and our government’s PR has been sharing with us out what they hope to achieve with their “social distancing” policies.
3️⃣ The Triangle with “G” in front is the mathematical model of the biological COVID-19 system based on probably decades of research by the CDC, World Health Organization, National Institutes of Health, and top collaborating mathematicians and biologists.
4️⃣ The Square with a “β” in front (β is a Greek symbol, often used by scientists to denote a variable) is what we can control — which includes any “social distancing” policies, quarantines, curfews, or other government interventions.
What the government has in effect done is to create a negative feedback loop with the aim of increasing this term β as much as possible.
Why do we want to maximize β?
Well, look at the equation on the bottom right again.
By maximizing β, since it is in the denominator, we minimize the “Pandemic Transfer Function” (and more precisely, the “modulus of the transfer function” since this quantity is a complex number).
What does that mean exactly?
Simply stated, minimizing the Pandemic Tranfer Function is equivalent to Flattening the Coronavirus Curve, which is our goal.
Great, now we just need to focus on maximizing this β term right to win this battle?
Well, it’s not quite that easy.
Although our government is singularly focused on maximizing β through “social distancing” policies, we are still making some imperfect assumptions.
First, the assumption is that our mathematical model (the Triangle) is correct — it most definitely is not and has definite model uncertainties that directly impacts how effectively maximizing β, which is dependent on the model, flattens the Coronavirus curve.
This is where mathematicians and biologists need to step in and collaborate to improve our existing model based on real-life data that is being provided by John Hopkins University.
That is, how can we optimize our use of control levers like smart quarantining policies, public policy mechanisms, social media education, allocation of public resources most effectively to flatten the Coronavirus Curve?
This is where control systems researchers and epidemiologists need to step in and collaborate to find additional levers in addition to “social distancing” policies.
While I remain hopeful that these issues are being researched, I remain less hopeful that our Presidents and Heads of States are heeding to the advice of these experts.
Humans have accomplished much throughout history, so in my view, it is just a matter of time before we discover, only by working together across political and academic lines, novel techniques to effectively combat not only COVID-19 but other pandemics (and biological weapons) in the future.
By Andrew Vo, CFA
Investor at Radna Intellectual Ventures
About Radna Intellectual Ventures
Radna Intellectual Ventures is a venture startup studio with a mission to enable the next generation of Deep Technologies or Deep Tech companies, with a focus on Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, and Blockchain technologies.
Our General Partner, Andrew Vo, spent a decade in finance, working at some of the largest investment managers like J.P. Morgan, before pursuing the entrepreneurial path. Andrew serves as an Advisor for startup companies focusing on the FinTech and DeepTech sectors. Andrew is a CFA Charterholder and holds a Masters of Science in Computer Engineering from Cornell University, and a Bachelors of Science in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of California, Berkeley.
Learn more about Radna Intellectual Ventures here.
— Published on March 25, 2020