We’ve spoken here on the Grail before about how, in the past century, advances in science and technology have suddenly gifted (or is that cursed?) us with the power to destroy our entire species. And while things like nuclear weapons have been around now for more than seventy years, a new contender is the rapidly advancing field of synthetic biology (or ‘synbio’).
It isn’t just the inherent power of technologies like synbio that makes them so dangerous – it’s that over time, technologies diffuse from being rare and expensive to low-cost and widespread. Combine that with the fact there is a non-zero percentage of people who actually have the desire to cause maximum, death, destruction and mayhem to their fellow humans, and it means that we could have some serious problems coming in the near future.
As Rob Reid points out in the TED talk embedded below, we need to start thinking *now* about how we’re going to deal with this threat. We’ve had the fear of nuclear destruction hanging over us since the 1940s, however…
…the number of people with actual doomsday buttons has stayed fairly stable since then. But I’m afraid it’s about to grow, and not just to three. This is going off the charts. I mean, it’s going to look like a tech business plan.
And the reason is, we’re in the era of exponential technologies, which routinely take eternal impossibilities and make them the actual superpowers of one or two living geniuses and — this is the big part — then diffuse those powers to more or less everybody.
Now, here’s a benign example. If you wanted to play checkers with a computer in 1952, you literally had to be that guy, then commandeer one of the world’s 19 copies of that computer, then used your Nobel-adjacent brain to teach it checkers. That was the bar. Today, you just need to know someone who knows someone who owns a telephone, because computing is an exponential technology.
So is synthetic biology, which I’ll now refer to as “synbio.” And in 2011, a couple of researchers did something every bit as ingenious and unprecedented as the checkers trick with H5N1 flu. This is a strain that kills up to 60 percent of the people it infects, more than Ebola. But it is so uncontagious that it’s killed fewer than 50 people since 2015. So these researchers edited H5N1’s genome and made it every bit as deadly, but also wildly contagious. The news arm of one of the world’s top two scientific journals said if this thing got out, it would likely cause a pandemic with perhaps millions of deaths. And Dr. Paul Keim said he could not think of an organism as scary as this, which is the last thing I personally want to hear from the Chairman of the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity.
To be honest, I’m not as optimistic as Reid. Looking at the state of the world, browsing social media…there’s too many stupid, hateful people for us to survive powerful technologies like synbio being something anyone can do.