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← How synthetic biology could wipe out humanity -- and how we can stop it

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Showing Revision 7 created 06/12/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. So, there's about
    seven and a half billion of us.
  2. The World Health Organization tells us
    that 300 million of us are depressed,
  3. and about 800,000 people
    take their lives every year.
  4. A tiny subset of them choose
    a profoundly nihilistic route,
  5. which is they die in the act of killing
    as many people as possible.
  6. These are some famous recent examples.
  7. And here's a less famous one.
    It happened about nine weeks ago.
  8. If you don't remember it,
  9. it's because there's
    a lot of this going on.
  10. Wikipedia just last year
    counted 323 mass shootings
  11. in my home country, the United States.
  12. Not all of those shooters were suicidal,
  13. not all of them were maximizing
    their death tolls,
  14. but many, many were.
  15. An important question becomes:
    What limits do these people have?

  16. Take the Vegas shooter.
  17. He slaughtered 58 people.
  18. Did he stop there because he'd had enough?
  19. No, and we know this because
    he shot and injured another 422 people
  20. who he surely would have
    preferred to kill.
  21. We have no reason to think
    he would have stopped at 4,200.
  22. In fact, with somebody this nihilistic,
    he may well have gladly killed us all.
  23. We don't know.
  24. What we do know is this:
  25. when suicidal murderers really go all in,
  26. technology is the force multiplier.
  27. Here's an example.

  28. Several years back, there was a rash
    of 10 mass school attacks in China
  29. carried out with things
    like knives and hammers and cleavers,
  30. because guns are really hard to get there.
  31. By macabre coincidence,
    this last attack occurred
  32. just hours before the massacre
    in Newtown, Connecticut.
  33. But that one American attack killed
    roughly the same number of victims
  34. as the 10 Chinese attacks combined.
  35. So we can fairly say,
    knife: terrible; gun: way worse.
  36. And airplane: massively worse,
  37. as pilot Andreas Lubitz showed
    when he forced 149 people
  38. to join him in his suicide,
  39. smashing a plane into the French Alps.
  40. And there are other examples of this.

  41. And I'm afraid there are far more deadly
    weapons in our near future than airplanes,
  42. ones not made of metal.
  43. So let's consider the apocalyptic
    dynamics that will ensue
  44. if suicidal mass murder hitches a ride
    on a rapidly advancing field
  45. that for the most part holds
    boundless promise for society.
  46. Somewhere out there in the world,
    there's a tiny group of people
  47. who would attempt, however ineptly,
  48. to kill us all if they
    could just figure out how.
  49. The Vegas shooter may or may not
    have been one of them,
  50. but with seven and a half billion of us,
  51. this is a nonzero population.
  52. There's plenty of suicidal
    nihilists out there.
  53. We've already seen that.
  54. There's people with severe mood disorders
    that they can't even control.
  55. There are people who have just suffered
    deranging traumas, etc. etc.
  56. As for the corollary group,
  57. its size was simply zero forever
    until the Cold War,
  58. when suddenly, the leaders
    of two global alliances
  59. attained the ability to blow up the world.
  60. The number of people
    with actual doomsday buttons

  61. has stayed fairly stable since then.
  62. But I'm afraid it's about to grow,
  63. and not just to three.
  64. This is going off the charts.
  65. I mean, it's going to look
    like a tech business plan.
  66. (Laughter)

  67. And the reason is,

  68. we're in the era
    of exponential technologies,
  69. which routinely take
    eternal impossibilities
  70. and make them the actual superpowers
    of one or two living geniuses
  71. and -- this is the big part --
  72. then diffuse those powers
    to more or less everybody.
  73. Now, here's a benign example.

  74. If you wanted to play checkers
    with a computer in 1952,
  75. you literally had to be that guy,
  76. then commandeer one of the world's
    19 copies of that computer,
  77. then used your Nobel-adjacent brain
    to teach it checkers.
  78. That was the bar.
  79. Today, you just need to know someone
    who knows someone who owns a telephone,
  80. because computing
    is an exponential technology.
  81. So is synthetic biology,

  82. which I'll now refer to as "synbio."
  83. And in 2011, a couple of researchers
    did something every bit as ingenious
  84. and unprecedented as the checkers trick
  85. with H5N1 flu.
  86. This is a strain that kills
    up to 60 percent of the people it infects,
  87. more than Ebola.
  88. But it is so uncontagious
  89. that it's killed fewer
    than 50 people since 2015.
  90. So these researchers edited H5N1's genome
  91. and made it every bit as deadly,
    but also wildly contagious.
  92. The news arm of one of the world's
    top two scientific journals
  93. said if this thing got out,
    it would likely cause a pandemic
  94. with perhaps millions of deaths.
  95. And Dr. Paul Keim said
  96. he could not think of an organism
    as scary as this,
  97. which is the last thing
    I personally want to hear
  98. from the Chairman of the National
    Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity.
  99. And by the way, Dr. Keim also said this --
  100. ["I don't think anthrax
    is scary at all compared to this."]

  101. And he's also one of these.

  102. [Anthrax expert] (Laughter)

  103. Now, the good news about the 2011 biohack

  104. is that the people who did it
    didn't mean us any harm.
  105. They're virologists.
  106. They believed they were advancing science.
  107. The bad news is that technology
    does not freeze in place,
  108. and over the next few decades,
  109. their feat will become trivially easy.
  110. In fact, it's already way easier,
    because as we learned yesterday morning,
  111. just two years after they did their work,
  112. the CRISPR system was harnessed
    for genome editing.
  113. This was a radical breakthrough
  114. that makes gene editing
    massively easier --
  115. so easy that CRISPR
    is now taught in high schools.
  116. And this stuff is moving
    quicker than computing.
  117. That slow, stodgy white line up there?
  118. That's Moore's law.
  119. That shows us how quickly
    computing is getting cheaper.
  120. That steep, crazy-fun green line,
  121. that shows us how quickly
    genetic sequencing is getting cheaper.
  122. Now, gene editing
    and synthesis and sequencing,
  123. they're different disciplines,
    but they're tightly related.
  124. And they're all moving
    in these headlong rates.
  125. And the keys to the kingdom
    are these tiny, tiny data files.
  126. That is an excerpt of H5N1's genome.
  127. The whole thing can fit
    on just a few pages.
  128. And yeah, don't worry, you can Google this
    as soon as you get home.
  129. It's all over the internet, right?
  130. And the part that made it contagious
  131. could well fit on a single Post-it note.
  132. And once a genius makes a data file,
  133. any idiot can copy it,
  134. distribute it worldwide
  135. or print it.
  136. And I don't just mean print it on this,
  137. but soon enough, on this.
  138. So let's imagine a scenario.

  139. Let's say it's 2026,
    to pick an arbitrary year,
  140. and a brilliant virologist,
    hoping to advance science
  141. and better understand pandemics,
  142. designs a new bug.
  143. It's as contagious as chicken pox,
  144. it's as deadly as Ebola,
  145. and it incubates for months and months
    before causing an outbreak,
  146. so the whole world can be infected
    before the first sign of trouble.
  147. Then, her university gets hacked.
  148. And of course,
    this is not science fiction.
  149. In fact, just one recent US indictment
  150. documents the hacking
    of over 300 universities.
  151. So that file with the bug's genome on it
    spreads to the internet's dark corners.
  152. And once a file is out there,
    it never comes back --
  153. just ask anybody who runs
    a movie studio or a music label.
  154. So now maybe in 2026,
  155. it would take a true genius
    like our virologist
  156. to make the actual living critter,
  157. but 15 years later,
  158. it may just take a DNA printer
    you can find at any high school.
  159. And if not?
  160. Give it a couple of decades.
  161. So, a quick aside:

  162. Remember this slide here?
  163. Turn your attention to these two words.
  164. If somebody tries this
    and is only 0.1 percent effective,
  165. eight million people die.
  166. That's 2,500 9/11s.
  167. Civilization would survive,
  168. but it would be permanently disfigured.
  169. So this means we need
    to be concerned about anybody
  170. who has the faintest shot on goal,
  171. not just geniuses.
  172. So today, there's a tiny
    handful of geniuses
  173. who probably could make a doomsday bug
  174. that's .1-percent effective
    and maybe even a little bit more.
  175. They tend to be stable and successful
    and so not part of this group.
  176. So I guess I'm sorta kinda
    barely OK-ish with that.
  177. But what about after technology improves
  178. and diffuses
  179. and thousands of life science
    grad students are enabled?
  180. Are every single one of them
    going to be perfectly stable?
  181. Or how about a few years after that,
  182. where every stress-ridden
    premed is fully enabled?
  183. At some point in that time frame,
  184. these circles are going to intersect,
  185. because we're now starting to talk about
    hundreds of thousands of people
  186. throughout the world.
  187. And they recently included that guy
    who dressed up like the Joker
  188. and shot 12 people to death
    at a Batman premiere.
  189. That was a neuroscience PhD student
  190. with an NIH grant.
  191. OK, plot twist:

  192. I think we can actually survive this one
    if we start focusing on it now.
  193. And I say this, having spent
    countless hours
  194. interviewing global leaders in synbio
  195. and also researching their work
    for science podcasts I create.
  196. I have come to fear their work, in case
    I haven't gotten that out there yet --
  197. (Laughter)

  198. but more than that,
    to revere its potential.

  199. This stuff will cure cancer,
    heal our environment
  200. and stop our cruel treatment
    of other creatures.
  201. So how do we get all this without,
    you know, annihilating ourselves?
  202. First thing: like it or not,
    synbio is here,

  203. so let's embrace the technology.
  204. If we do a tech ban,
  205. that would only hand
    the wheel to bad actors.
  206. Unlike nuclear programs,
  207. biology can be practiced invisibly.
  208. Massive Soviet cheating
    on bioweapons treaties
  209. made that very clear, as does every
    illegal drug lab in the world.
  210. Secondly, enlist the experts.

  211. Let's sign them up and make more of them.
  212. For every million and one
    bioengineers we have,
  213. at least a million of them
    are going to be on our side.
  214. I mean, Al Capone
    would be on our side in this one.
  215. The bar to being a good guy
    is just so low.
  216. And massive numerical
    advantages do matter,
  217. even when a single bad guy
    can inflict grievous harm,
  218. because among many other things,
  219. they allow us to exploit
    the hell out of this:
  220. we have years and hopefully decades
    to prepare and prevent.
  221. The first person to try something awful --
    and there will be somebody --
  222. may not even be born yet.
  223. Next, this needs to be an effort
    that spans society,

  224. and all of you need to be a part of it,
  225. because we cannot ask
    a tiny group of experts
  226. to be responsible for both containing
    and exploiting synthetic biology,
  227. because we already tried that
    with the financial system,
  228. and our stewards became
    massively corrupted
  229. as they figured out
    how they could cut corners,
  230. inflict massive, massive risks
    on the rest of us
  231. and privatize the gains,
  232. becoming repulsively wealthy
  233. while they stuck us
    with the $22 trillion bill.
  234. And more recently --

  235. (Applause)

  236. Are you the ones who have gotten
    the thank-you letters?

  237. I'm still waiting for mine.
  238. I just figured they were
    too busy to be grateful.
  239. And much more recently,

  240. online privacy started looming
    as a huge issue,
  241. and we basically outsourced it.
  242. And once again:
  243. privatized gains, socialized losses.
  244. Is anybody else sick of this pattern?
  245. (Applause)

  246. So we need a more inclusive way
    to safeguard our prosperity,

  247. our privacy
  248. and soon, our lives.
  249. So how do we do all of this?
  250. Well, when bodies fight pathogens,

  251. they use ingenious immune systems,
  252. which are very complex and multilayered.
  253. Why don't we build one of these
    for the whole damn ecosystem?
  254. There's a year of TED Talks that could
    be given on this first critical layer.
  255. So these are just a couple
    of many great ideas that are out there.
  256. Some R and D muscle

  257. could take the very primitive
    pathogen sensors that we currently have
  258. and put them on a very steep
    price performance curve
  259. that would quickly become ingenious
  260. and networked
  261. and gradually as widespread
    as smoke detectors and even smartphones.
  262. On a very related note:
  263. vaccines have all kinds of problems
  264. when it comes to manufacturing
    and distribution,
  265. and once they're made, they can't adapt
    to new threats or mutations.
  266. We need an agile biomanufacturing base
  267. extending into every single pharmacy
    and maybe even our homes.
  268. Printer technology for vaccines
    and medicines is within reach
  269. if we prioritize it.
  270. Next, mental health.

  271. Many people who commit
    suicidal mass murder
  272. suffer from crippling,
    treatment-resistant depression or PTSD.
  273. We need noble researchers
    like Rick Doblin working on this,
  274. but we also need the selfish jerks
    who are way more numerous
  275. to appreciate the fact that acute
    suffering will soon endanger all of us,
  276. not just those afflicted.
  277. Those jerks will then
    join us and Al Capone
  278. in fighting this condition.
  279. Third, each and every one of us
    can be and should be a white blood cell
  280. in this immune system.
  281. Suicidal mass murderers
    can be despicable, yes,
  282. but they're also terribly
    broken and sad people,
  283. and those of us who aren't
    need to do what we can
  284. to make sure nobody goes unloved.
  285. (Applause)

  286. Next, we need to make
    fighting these dangers

  287. core to the discipline
    of synthetic biology.
  288. There are companies out there
    that at least claim
  289. they let their engineers
    spend 20 percent of their time
  290. doing whatever they want.
  291. What if those who hire bioengineers
  292. and become them
  293. give 20 percent of their time
    to building defenses for the common good?
  294. Not a bad idea, right?
  295. (Applause)

  296. Then, finally: this won't be any fun.

  297. But we need to let our minds
    go to some very, very dark places,
  298. and thank you for letting me
    take you there this evening.
  299. We survived the Cold War
  300. because every one of us understood
    and respected the danger,
  301. in part, because we had spent decades
  302. telling ourselves terrifying ghost stories
  303. with names like "Dr. Strangelove"
  304. and "War Games."
  305. This is no time to remain calm.
  306. This is one of those rare times
    when it's incredibly productive
  307. to freak the hell out --
  308. (Laughter)

  309. to come up with some ghost stories

  310. and use our fear as fuel
    to fight this danger.
  311. Because, all these
    terrible scenarios I've painted --

  312. they are not destiny.
  313. They're optional.
  314. The danger is still kind of distant.
  315. And that means it will only befall us
  316. if we allow it to.
  317. Let's not.

  318. Thank you very much for listening.

  319. (Applause)