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January 08, 2007

Bio-Weapons For The Masses Future  Global Guerrillas  Science/Technology  War and Peace

Computer technology advances exponentially, as described by Moore's Law, the observation that computing power per unit cost doubles every 18 months or so. Biotechnology is increasingly an application of computing, which is one of the reasons why it, too, advances exponentially. Nanotechnology, ditto.

The rapid evolution of biotech means that before long — within a decade, certainly — individuals and small groups worldwide will have the means to develop pathogens as weapons of terror. They won't need to get their hands on anything exotic — nothing comparable to trying to acquire fissile material for nukes — and the tools, skills, and knowledge will be readily available because of their importance to private-sector biotech.

John Robb, of Global Guerrillas, draws on Robert Carlson's work to make some of his usual congent observations about what's coming. Robb:

  • [Carlson provides] evidence that biotechnology is improving at rates equal or better than Moore's law. These "Carlson Curves" plot the reduction in cost and the improvements in productivity available to individual practitioners. This means that very soon, in less than a decade, the technologies necessary for individuals to build catastrophic pathogens will be cheap and widely available. "Labs on a chip" are in the offing.
  • The knowledge and information necessary for developing catastrophic pathogens will be globally dispersed. As Carlson points out, work that used to require a PhD a couple of years ago is now accomplished by lightly trained technicians. Further, the low capital costs of laboratory development and its importance to the private sector means that this training and technology will be widespread. Finally, most of the information necessary for even extremely dangerous pathogens is available online.
  • There are no material barriers to the production of biological weapons. While certain reagents are currently controlled, the manufacturing processes for these materials and their widespread usage pose few barriers to circumvention. Unlike nuclear proliferation, there aren't any natural choke points.
  • Robb suggests further that, analogous to what has been happening in the realm of Internet computer crime, criminal networks will arise that will "actively produce weapons of bioterror for profit, and thereby become critical contributors to the global open source war now underway."

    For centuries, states held a monopoly on the means of large-scale violence. Globalization is bringing that monopoly to an end. In an era when the collective knowledge of humanity is increasingly available to anyone with an Internet connection, when people and goods are free to move pretty much anywhere in the world, overnight, and when weapons of mass destruction suddenly can be microscopic applications of ubiquitously available technology — all bets are off.

    This is a recipe for scenarios with a potential lethality perhaps limited only by perpetrators' consciences. Given that large numbers of people have no conscience, it's not an encouraging picture.

    Posted by Jonathan at January 8, 2007 05:56 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


    Bill Joy predicted this would happen a while back:


    Maybe we'll have to (1) learn to be nice to each other, and (2) work out a way of accurately profiling genuine sociopaths and lock them all up before they cause too much harm (hey - I can go all authoritarian too :-)...

    Posted by: Big Gav at January 9, 2007 05:48 AM

    Might be a good time to review good infection control in your life, along with healthy eating to keep the biobugs at bay. Ginger, garlic, any of the 30 biocide spices...consider adding them and use the global food network to get them to you.

    (a willingness to not be in cities might also be a good plan - infection control via avoiding others)

    Posted by: eric blair at January 9, 2007 08:17 AM