Computer scientists dislike being told that, sooner or later, a smart machine, programmed to increase its brainpower at an exponential rate, will manage to escape from its human handlers and, for its own unfathomable reasons, go on a devastating rampage. Most say nothing like this could happen outside the domains of science fiction but, just in case, some want to see safeguards of one kind or another inserted into all devices to ensure they show a proper respect for homo sapiens. Good luck with that: as the coronavirus has been busily reminding us, our species is ill-equipped to defend itself from attacks by organisms, whether artificial or not, complex or relatively simple, which have no interest in our feelings but are fully capable of taking advantage of our weaknesses.
Everybody is aware that viruses, or computers for that matter, do not think, but even epidemiologists are prone to talk as though they believe they do and warn us that “they do not care about Christmas,” are indifferent to lines on the map and cannot be negotiated with. They also appreciate their ability to change quickly in order to spread more rapidly, which is why new variants of the coronavirus like the ones which are currently causing panic in Europe and elsewhere, keep cropping up.
From an evolutionary point of view, this makes sense. When an ecological niche becomes available, something will eventually fill it, as has happened in the most unlikely parts of the world; in volcanic vents deep under the ocean, icy stretches of Antarctica and other equally inhospitable places. Viruses are no exception; they may not weigh the pros and cons of any particular course of action, but that does not prevent them from doing what suits them most.
In its way, the coronavirus, like its deadlier forerunners, does function like an intelligent being with its own priorities. Like all life forms – apart from civilised humans who, if demographic tendencies are anything to go by, have chosen to save the planet by declining to reproduce themselves and eventually dying out – it is determined to go forth and multiply.
Until fairly recently, the coronavirus contented itself with burrowing into bats, pangolins and other such creatures which learned to live with their uninvited lodgers, but it then seized a chance to launch a large-scale attack on the human population in what looks very much like an attempt to colonise it. In this endeavour it has enjoyed a remarkable degree of success. Almost a hundred million people throughout the world, even in Antarctica, have already provided its countless progeny with comfortable homes, and close on two million have died as a result of their efforts to find one. However, since killing potential hosts is a bad policy for any self-respecting virus, as time rolls on milder strains should come to predominate. Indeed, if there were such a thing as a coronavirus high command, when starting operations it must have ordered its soldiers to go easy, which would be why most mortal victims have been elderly people suffering from life-threatening health problems. In Italy, the average age of those who died has been near 80 and the vast majority, over 90 percent, were already seriously ill.
So far, the coronavirus has managed to advance on almost every front, leaping over national borders, making mock of the ubiquitous lockdowns and persuading people to give up most of their normal activities, but humankind is getting ready to fight back. Several vaccines, some traditional, as it were, like the Oxford-AstraZeneca and the Russian Sputnik, and others, led by the Pfizer and Moderna ones, which are distinctly high-tech, are being wheeled out. Will they have enough firepower to repel the invaders? Perhaps they will by strengthening the body’s natural defence systems and by so doing making “herd immunity” more than just an unpleasantly-named aspiration, but it is generally agreed that immunising huge numbers of people not just in the rich countries but also in poorer and worse-governed countries, will take a long time.
And then? Sooner or later, other viruses, some of which are bound to be far nastier than the one behind Covid-19, will make an appearance. Had the coronavirus been as bad as many of its predecessors, like the one which gave us the so-called ‘Spanish flu’ and killed about 50 million people when the human population was roughly a quarter of what it is today, the death toll would surely have been many times higher and would have included millions of children and young adults. By historical standards, on this occasion we got off lightly. What made the coronavirus pandemic so special was not the mortality rate, which if anything was below par, but the almost universal decision to tell people to stop “non-essential” work and hunker down until a vaccine relief force finally put an end to the siege.
A year ago, when the war against the coronavirus began, much of the world was already sunk in gloom, with some vigorous campaigners warning us that climate change would soon turn the planet into an uninhabitable oven, others frantically calling attention to the extinction of ever more biological species, political movements undergoing unexpected mutations with racial concepts enjoying a comeback among people who imagined themselves to be progressives, puritanical authoritarians making their presence felt in academe, the media and even big multinational corporations, and riots against the system or whatever becoming commonplace in the United States, France and other countries. Needless to say, the sudden appearance of a previously unidentified virus which threatened to overwhelm most health services and did put an immediate stop to a wide range of economic activities, only served to intensify the pessimism so many felt.
All this bodes ill for the post-coronavirus future. Demands for sweeping changes, and to hell with the medium or long-term consequences, are likely to become even more imperative. The loss of faith in democratic principles, among them respect for freedom of speech, will remove inhibitions which, in democratic countries at least, helped make life rewarding for most Westerners after the nightmarish conflicts of the first half of the 20th century and, since the disintegration of the Soviet empire, their fellow Europeans in the east of the continent, could have quite disastrous results. Doomsters say we are seeing the death throes of what some call the “enlightenment project” which, by and large, was responsible for much of what is good in the world we live in. If this is so, the coronavirus will have helped speed it on its journey into the night.