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The Democratization of Virulence
Mike Treder   Sep 11, 2009   Ethical Technology  

A mistake in a factory can result in scores of injuries or deaths. A mistake at a chemical plant can kill thousands. But a mistake in a biological laboratory could result in a pandemic.

Military might is no longer the exclusive province of nations. Extra-national groups now can mount significant fights against conventional armies.

As the barriers to the spread of technology come down, thanks mainly to the Internet and the rapid expansion of wireless telecom, non-state actors are growing ever more sophisticated in their use of innovative technology including submersibles and unmanned drone aircraft. Knowledge diffusion combined with globalized free trade allows a wide range of militant organizations to get their hands on increasingly cutting-edge weaponry.

This unsettling development is sometimes called the “democratization of violence.” Rapidly improving communications technologies have the unfortunate effect of allowing far more destructive power to fall into the hands of smaller groups than ever before.

Worse yet, the growing potential for asymmetric destructive capability is not limited to conventional weaponry.

Chemical and biological warfare has been largely sworn off by the community of sovereign nations. Desperate and determined extra-national groups may not be as hesitant to use them, however. And as the culture of “hacking” spreads from the computer into the laboratory, the potential for bio-terror actions may also increase.

Though it may sound like the plot to a sci-fi film—teenage genius creates glow-in-the-dark pet monster as science project in garage—the tinkering that we now only associate with technology and machines, is emerging within the fields of genetics and biotechnology. A trend that is being made possible through a combination of falling prices for DNA sequencing, availability of basic building blocks like BioBricks, open source databases of genes, homemade technology that approximates professional laboratory equipment and a small but growing community of biohackers, DIYbio chief among them.

Of course, it’s not all bad. The same openness of information that could empower more destructive terrorist attacks also could enable a rapid increase in beneficial innovations, coming from “amateur” biologists.

Many of the world’s great innovators started out as hackers—people who like to tinker with technology—and some of the largest technology companies started in garages. Thomas Edison built General Electric on the foundation of an improved way to transmit messages down telegraph wires, which he cooked up himself. Hewlett-Packard was founded in a garage in California (now a national landmark), as was Google, many years later. And, in addition to computer hardware and software, garage hackers and home-build enthusiasts are now merrily cooking up electric cars, drone aircraft and rockets. But what about biology? Might biohacking—tinkering with the DNA of existing organisms to create new ones—lead to innovations of a biological nature?

This question arose during a workshop I attended earlier this week organized by the Institute for the Future. The major concern expressed there was less about bio-terror—the democratization of violence—and more about bio-error—what I have dubbed the democratization of virulence.

A mistake in a factory can result in scores of injuries or deaths. A mistake at a chemical plant can kill thousands. But a mistake in a biological laboratory could result in a pandemic. And as more and more people at all levels of competence gain access to the tools for biohacking, the risk of error would seem to rise dramatically.

Is that risk—the danger from a rapid expansion of biohackers—worth taking in order to gain the potential benefits of having a legion of possibly brilliant new tinkerers working on solutions to the many problems we face?

It probably is, but we should not dismiss the downsides of this ethical experiment.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.

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