Army Develops Model to Aid Epidemic Predictions

By Mandy Mayfield

CCDC Army Research Laboratory Public Affairs illustration

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Army researchers have developed a new mathematical model that could improve future disease outbreak predictions based on how information mutates as it is transmitted.

The model suggests that ideas and information spread between individuals in patterns that are similar in the way that genes self-replicate, develop and respond to selective forces as they interact with their host, according to the Army. The technology was developed by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University and Princeton University through the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory.

Edward Palazzolo, program manager for the social and cognitive networks program at the Army Research Office, noted that information systems are inherently different than biological systems, but he believes both sides can benefit from studying behavioral patterns from one another.

The quintessential example of an information system is Twitter, he said.

“Twitter is a propagation system,” he said. The platform allows individuals to write down their thoughts, codify them in words, and then they get retweeted by other users.

“I hit retweet and send — it’s an exact copy of what I received and that’s what we see with viral transmission,” he said. “But other people will take it and twist it: add to it, remove from it, want to add their hashtag, add someone’s specific name to it, and so those are mutations across the information system.”

Palazzolo compared information mutation to the “telephone game.”

“When we talk about information mutation, what we’re talking about is how does information change as it gets transmitted, which is no different than what you know from being a kid and playing the telephone game,” he said. “Information gets added, deleted [and] changed as it moves from person to person.”

According to the research, individuals will modify information to help it spread, Palazzolo said.

“If I make it more exciting — if I expand on what I was originally told — it may get some more interest,” he said. This is “akin to a virus that mutates as it transmits because it’s looking to, in a biological sense, move from host to host for its literal survival.”

Although the new model was successfully tested against thousands of computer-simulated epidemics using data from real-world networks, it is still in the very early stages, Palazzolo said.

“This is why it is so critical to invest in basic research because it takes a long time to build these models, it takes a long time to validate the models, to build the relationships in the scientific community,” he said. “We have to keep pushing at the very early stages of science so that … we’re in a better position to provide some answers and solutions.”

Topics: Army News

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