Originally published on the Rookout blog by Or Weis, CEO and Co-Founder of Rookout

The metaphor of software viruses to biological ones is deeply ingrained, easily seen in the fact that biological viruses are at least the namesake, if not the inspiration for computer viruses.

Can we take this analogy and reapply it in reverse? Is it possible to learn more about how we can combat biological viruses, such as the raging COVID-19 epidemic, by leveraging concepts, mindsets, and ideas that evolved in the software engineering and cybersecurity worlds? This is what we’re going to try and explore in this thought experiment, with the purpose of creating  discussions that may fuel better understanding and perhaps even new solutions.

Completing the analogy

The world of software is a complex one and the world of biology (coming in with an unfair advantage of about 4 billion years head start 😀 ) makes the complexity of software look like a joke. With such complex realms it’s difficult to satisfy the thought process by simply saying that a virus is analogous to a virus. Rather, we have to go much deeper. While there are probably many ways to draw this analogy, by picking some semantics we’d be better off than deciding on none. In addition, we will focus the analogy to best suit the characteristics of COVID-19 (as compared to other pathogens, viruses, and bacteria).

Analogy points

Diagram showing Attack Analogy

Attack analogy diagram / With graphics from Nytimes.com – “How coronavirus hijacks your cells”

It’s important to note that while we have a rather good understanding of software and cybersecurity (though even there much remains to be explored), the world of biology still remains more of a mystery for us in comparison. This is probably a direct result of our having designed and created the software world, but we didn’t design or create the biological one (it actually created us). This gap of understanding, and applicable technology – makes some – if not most – of the solutions we have in the software realm harder to implement in the biological one.

Now that we have both the analogy and expectations set in place, let’s take a look at analogues solutions that already exist and then move to cybersec solutions we can use to derive new biological/medicinal capabilities by analogy.

Solutions that exist (at least partially) in both worlds

An endpoint firewall (also known as a personal firewall), protects a network node from attacks by limiting the type or content of traffic – minimizing the attack surface. A simple parallel found in the healthcare world are face masks. We can consider more complex filtering mechanisms (such as smart-masks or smart suits) which, like a network firewall, would be more configurable to adjust to specific threats and needs. If the epidemic continues to rage, this would probably be a leading category for IoT and wearables to grow into.

Screenshot showing Turtle Troll commented. "I believe him. This man's been dealing with viruses since Windows 95" on CNN news, highlighted on Bill Gates

Solutions we can import from cyber to the biological world

Software security: a road map for bio-engineering

While many of the methods here appear as science fiction when translated from the software to the biological world, some of them are within reach and can conceptually turn the tides of battle in humanity’s favor in this long, ever escalating, war. Personally, I believe that smart medical wearables and IoT, medical honeypot alarm systems, and area-access regulation based on trusted data are inevitable if the situation (with COVID-19, or other pathogens) continues to escalate.

I believe this thought experiment shows that while translation might not be easy, there is a lot of potential to be had in the discussion and by generally trying to apply cross pollination between the fields. Software engineering and cyber security are fields leading a significant percentage of society’s technological innovation. As leaders, we engineers have the responsibility of looking at the bigger picture, of thinking outside the box, and seeing how we can harness our efforts for the greater good and not just within our own field.