Learning from biology: September 10, 2017 Snippets

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This week’s theme: how the immune system evolved to tackle a similar problem as the innovation economy. Plus an inspiring story of resilience and rescue during Hurricane Harvey.

Welcome to our final segment in this current Snippets series on productive bubbles in the Innovation Economy. If you’ve been away for the past couple weeks, you can catch up with our Introduction to Bubbles issue as well as a tour of why bubbles can sometimes be useful in advancing the world’s productive capabilities. Today we’re going to look at an entirely different system in the natural world that evolved to face a strikingly similar challenge, and gain an appreciation for how sometimes nature has already figured out the answers way ahead of us.

Suppose you were in charge of designing a system that had to operate under conditions of extreme uncertainty. It has to eagerly adapt to anything that the future can throw its way, and not only survive but thrive in the face of uncertainty and turbulence. We want it to work in a similar way to how the innovation economy helps us build a future even know we don’t know what the future looks like: we can already guess that “efficiency” will not be our friend here. What does this look like in practice?

As it turns out, nature is millions of years ahead of us. Biological organisms have to deal with uncertainty all the time, and the biggest unknown threat of all isn’t food, the environment or even predators — it’s germs. And we know how animals deal with germs — we have immune systems. But how do they work, and how did they evolve? Our immune system, at first glance, seems straightforward enough: we make special proteins called antibodies that are designed to detect and selectively bind to germs, reacting in a way that signals an infection to the rest of the body. We then go into hyper-response mode: the body’s defences go into overdrive, mobilize, and defeat the infection. Seems fine; all you need to do is make sure you have antibodies that can detect all of the germs out there. Right?

So here’s the problem: germs evolve a lot faster than we do. Like, many orders of magnitude faster. So the immune system faces a paradox: it needs to be capable, in advance, of detecting and responding to a threat that may not even exist yet! Uh oh. All of a sudden this challenge seems a lot harder. We need to design a system that can succeed in the face of uncertainty: how do you make a system that tackles a problem that doesn’t even exist yet?

The way that our immune system works is extremely cool, and is highly applicable to the Innovation Economy. The non-biologically-technical explanation is as follows: we evolved the capability to make antibodies that respond to randomly generated patterns. We make huge numbers of these “random” antibodies, all found at fairly low levels everywhere. Hardly any of these antibodies will ever find a match; nearly every one is wasted. But not all of them. Every once in a while, some random lucky antibody detects something that looks like a brand new threat that hasn’t been seen before. After going through a series of checks to make sure it hasn’t detected another random cell or body part (which is fascinating in its own right, but out of scope for our discussion), the system announces, “OK, we’ve found something that might be important!” So it scales up a huge, often unnecessarily over-reactive defence, and chases away the germ threat. And then, forever onwards, the body has infrastructure available to deal with that kind of threat. So if that same germ ever shows up again, boom. The immune response is swift and massive. This is how vaccines work: since as a society we know what polio looks like, what the measles looks like, and so forth, we can preemptively present the body with small amounts of all of these germs so that they don’t even need that first initial exposure. (Vaccines are a very clever hack.)

So let’s take a step back and describe the immune system’s strategy for dealing with the unknown: a combination of redundancy (generating antibodies for millions of different randomly generated theoretical threats) and overreaction (the massive immune response that results and the powerful infrastructure that gets left behind, regardless of whether or not it will ever be needed again). Both of these processes are wasteful, but we must concede that they are effective at dealing with the unknown. They work, and they work well. The general principle at work here is called hormesis: small amounts of provocation or damage leading to long term, emergent capabilities in response. The more inefficiently the immune system operates, the more effective it ultimately is.

As it turns out, the Innovation Economy works in an oddly similar way. We, too, face a similar problem: how do we build the future, if we don’t know what the future looks like yet? In practice, we try a tiny bit of everything. Most of those efforts go completely to waste, but that’s okay — because occasionally, decisively, something works. And when the story behind it has enough promise to capture the imagination of speculators, we get the right conditions for bubbles to form. And we know what happens next; we get a frenzy of building and speculation that can be extremely wasteful, but leaves something important behind: a new set of infrastructure that reorganizes the market economy, creates new economic space in which we can build, and ratchets up our total productivity as a society. What we see in the world around us is a market economy that has been shaped by the output of these technological revolutions. Survivorship bias is certainly at work: we don’t see what has failed; only what has succeeded. But when it succeeds, it really succeeds: anyone who has ever driven in a car, used electricity, or has an iPhone can attest.

What’s striking about this parallel is that the initial process of sampling many different possibilities — whether it’s making new antibodies or tinkering together on an invention in the garage — only work as a part of the innovation economy if that second step of dramatic over-reaction is present and possible. What both the innovation economy and the immune system have evolved to do is trade efficiency for effectiveness in a very dramatic way: with respect to both its inputs (parallel experimentation) and its outputs (hormetic overreaction). That’s pretty cool if you ask me.


Bits to atoms:

Definite optimism as human capital | Dan Wang

Google’s new street view cameras will help them index the real world | Tom Simonite, Wired

Is Google about to build the world’s first true qubit? | James Wootton

Heard of Solar plus Storage? Try Wind plus Storage:

Battery storage takes hold in the wind industry | Jason Deign, GTM

Deepwater, Tesla to pair offshore wind farm with 40 MWh battery storage system | Krysti Shallenberger, Utility Dive

Wind turbine manufacturers are dipping toes into energy storage projects | Megan Geuss, Ars Technica

Open source projects and their own challenges:

2014: OpenBazaar; 2017: still OpenBazaar | Brian Hoffman

In cloud software wars, Mesosphere bows to Kubernetes | Kevin McLaughlin & Amir Efrati, The Information

More on you-know-what:

ICOs welcome: Isle of Man to unveil friendly framework for token sales | Stan Higgins, Coindesk

The China ICO ban | Fred Wilson

Robert Shiller wrote the book on bubbles. He says “the best example right now is bitcoin.” | John Detrixhe, Quartz

Controversial performances:

The weird brilliance of Joaquin Phoenix | Bret Easton Ellis, NYT Magazine

Did the Jack Welch model sow the seeds of GE’s decline? | James Stewart, NYT

More reading from around the Internet:

Cloud is not a digital transformation strategy (unless you’re Amazon) | Jedidiah Yueh

Lessons learned scaling Airbnb 100x | Jonathan Golden

Money for water: a pilot project wins over skeptical farmers and ranchers | Sarah Tory, Aspen Journalism

Our entire credit bureau system is broken: Equifax is just one example of a larger problem | Russel Brandom, The Verge

Wild dogs in Africa engage in fascinating “voting behavior” to reach quorum while hunting | Annalee Newitz, Ars Technica

Jeff Bezos mandates programming shift at Amazon Studios: “Bring me Game of Thrones.” | Cynthia Littleton & Daniel Holloway, Variety

And just for fun, in this week’s lighter side:

Boston Red Sox used Apple Watches to steal signs against Yankees | Michael Schmidt, NYT


In this week’s news and notes from the Social Capital family, we have an inspiring story of resilience to share from the path of Hurricane Harvey. Writing in Education Weekly, Benjamin Herold tells a story of selfless rescue in the face of storm: how teachers at Duryea Elementary school in suburban Houston used Remind to find each other, stay safe and in one instance rescue a fellow staff member:

From rescues to relief, principals’ response to Harvey aided by ed tech | Benjamin Herold, Education Week

As Herold recounts,

Kenneth Henry, the Duryea Elementary principal, says he’s not particularly tech savvy.

“I’m not a big Facebooker,” he said. “My staff teases me about it.”

But some digital tools are increasingly essential to being a principal. Among them: apps such as Remind 101, which allows school leaders to send group-text messages directly to every staff member’s phone, rather than hoping they’ll see an email message or social media post.

Typically, Henry said, he’ll use it to send reminders about meetings or notices about events. That was the case just a few days earlier, when the Duryea team was going through a week of professional development and preparing for the opening of school.

But as Harvey gathered strength, Henry began transitioning into crisis-response mode. He used Remind 101 to request that all Duryea staff let him know if they were evacuating, where they were heading, and if they needed help.

“By the second day of heavy rain and wind, a lot of people were saying, ‘we’ve waited as long as we can, but we have to leave.’” Henry said.

To read on on the details of Henry’s dramatic rescue, be sure to read the story in full. It’s another example of how the great work that the team at Remind is doing, not just in facilitating the academic classroom but in building and connecting the community around it. It’s not the first time that Remind has played a key role in keeping people safe in scary situations, and we’re glad that the work Remind is doing is having such an impact both in and outside of the classroom. If you want to help, you can join Remind in contributing to the Harvey Relief Fund on DonorsChoose to help fund classrooms and schools that will be getting back on their feet in the coming weeks. And as usual, Remind is hiring for a number of open positions in San Francisco; please forward along to anyone who is looking.

Have a great week, and for everyone in Florida and otherwise near Irma, stay safe;

Alex & the team from Social Capital