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Superheroes In the Age of COVID-19

Visualization of a satellite network

I grew up on the inner-city streets of Toronto and like many boys, my friends and I voraciously read comic books. We watched Saturday morning cartoons with the Super Friends. We imitated them – shooting invisible ​‘Spidey webs’ from our wrists and lifting invisible boulders off our pinned friends as we combined forces in the Battle of Good versus Evil on school playgrounds. We were only limited by our imaginations. 

We watched Star Trek and reveled in the sights of automatically opening doors on the Starship Enterprise while our daydreams allowed us to ​“boldly go where no man has gone before.” You can imagine our delight when in the mid-1970s, doors in grocery stores opened automatically upon ​‘sensing’ our movement toward them. I vividly remember walking through my first automatic door and realizing that the gap between fantasy and reality was closing. I was amazed when Captain Kirk would call out ​“Computer” to summon the computing power of his ship to answer a complex question requiring an expeditious answer. Far-fetched? Ask Alexa or Siri whether they think so.

As machine learning proliferates and digital infrastructures grow, technology’s growth and spread are at times tempered by cautions from Mr. Spock’s famous line in Season 2, Episode 24 ​“The Ultimate Computer.” He stated: ​“Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.” 

Extraordinary Breakthroughs Thanks to Digital Technologies and Big Data

Remember back just one year ago to March 2020, to the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada. There was sobering speculation that the development of a potential vaccine could be years away, possibly even decades. After all, that was the case for other infectious diseases such as polio and influenza.

But here we are, and we have not just one but several vaccines rolling out. This achievement is largely due to the power of the Summit supercomputer located in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The Summit can perform 200 quadrillion calculations per second – at least a million times more computing power than the average laptop. When researchers fed in the roughly 700,000 possible chromosomal links with potential for a COVID-19 vaccine, Summit quickly pared down that number to only 70 most likely combinations.

Those results were shared openly, giving researchers and global pharmaceutical companies the valuable head start they needed.

Canada is emerging as a leader in this brave new world. The pandemic has succeeded in accelerating the need for cutting-edge digital infrastructure in this country. You can read more about my thoughts on the enormous potential of the relationship between research and technology, Canadian R&D and the power of collaboration over competition in my new LinkedIn article.

Indeed Mr. Spock, may we all ​“Live Long and Prosper” to joyfully wonder what science, technology and research have in store for earthlings of the future.

Nizar Ladak
New Digital Research Infrastructure Organization (NDRIO)