is another excerpt from the book I'm writing on technology, terrorism, and my
time at DHS, tentatively titled "Skating on Stilts." (If you want to
read the excerpts in a more coherent fashion, try the category on the
right labeled "excerpts from the book.") Comments and factual quibbles
are welcome, either in the comments section or by email:
email@example.com. If you're dying to order the book, send
mail to the same address. I'm still looking for an agent and a
publisher, so feel free to make recommendations on that score too.
If jet travel and computers were the ghosts of technologies past and present, biotechnology is a specter that haunts the future. It became my personal nightmare while serving on the Robb-Silberman commission. The United States agreed to give up biological weapons in the 1970s. And it stopped all work on them at that time. The Russians signed the same treaty but if anything they expanded their biological weapons programs, making ever more loathsome and unstoppable diseases. Little wonder then that their client states and allies, like Iraq, also had biological programs.
Most troubling from an intelligence point of view, our spies had little or no insight into these programs, in Russia or in Iraq, until defectors revealed them. It was just too easy to hide them, in medical or insecticide factories, say, or in anonymous laboratories in obscure cities.
Just as bad, the death and demoralization that biological weapons cause can be equivalent to a nuclear detonation. That made it crucial that we do a better job of tracking foreign governments’ illicit biological programs, as the Robb-Silberman commission recommended.
But that wasn’t the scariest part. What scared me was how rapidly the ability to make biological weapons is being democratized. Biotechnology is growing as fast as jet travel and computers. The cost and difficulty of biological engineering is being reduced at an exponential rate.
And scientists’ ability to build dangerous organisms is increasing just as fast. In 2005, the deadly 1918 flu virus was rebuilt from scratch. Smallpox has been eradicated in the wild; it is more dangerous to humankind than ever, now that vaccinations have stopped. It has not been synthesized, at least not that we know of. But the failure to recreate smallpox is now a matter of choice, not capability. Larger and more complex organisms have already been created, and the cost and difficulty of assembling such DNA sequences keeps dropping.
In fact, the current state of the art has moved from viruses (which some would describe as less than living) to bacteria. In 2008, scientists assembled the entire DNA sequence for a small bacterium that causes urinary tract infections.
Of course, you have to be really talented to assemble that large a sequence. Only a handful of labs could accomplish that feat today. But Moore’s law will do soon do for DNA synthesis what it did for mainframes. DNA experiments that were once the province only of big institutions with sophisticated staffs will in a few years be the playground of smart high school kids.
Indeed, that’s the dream of a lot of influential and wealthy industry leaders. The people who lived through the information revolution would like the biotech revolution to be a straight replay -- complete with DNA hackers operating out of their parents’ garage, DNA synthesis IPOs, and “open source” DNA coding languages. They’re not concerned that biotech and synthetic DNA haven’t really delivered big improvements in human health yet. Massively democratizing computer power was good for all of us, they say, pointing to the results of the personal computer and the Internet. Why shouldn’t the mass democratization of DNA synthesis also produce an outpouring of creativity, playfulness, and unexpected progress? Besides, they conclude, it’s going to happen whether we like it or not, so we might as well get on the bandwagon.
But you don’t have to be Cassandra, or Ned Ludd, to see that a world where millions of people can make smallpox from scratch might turn out to be a dangerous place.
That's not a future that wants to kill you; that’s a future that could kill you in a fit of adolescent pique.