How synthetic biology could wipe out humanity — and how we can stop it | Rob Reid


So, there’s about
seven and a half billion of us. The World Health Organization tells us
that 300 million of us are depressed, and about 800,000 people
take their lives every year. A tiny subset of them choose
a profoundly nihilistic route, which is they die in the act of killing
as many people as possible. These are some famous recent examples. And here’s a less famous one.
It happened about nine weeks ago. If you don’t remember it, it’s because there’s
a lot of this going on. Wikipedia just last year
counted 323 mass shootings in my home country, the United States. Not all of those shooters were suicidal, not all of them were maximizing
their death tolls, but many, many were. An important question becomes:
What limits do these people have? Take the Vegas shooter. He slaughtered 58 people. Did he stop there because he’d had enough? No, and we know this because
he shot and injured another 422 people who he surely would have
preferred to kill. We have no reason to think
he would have stopped at 4,200. In fact, with somebody this nihilistic,
he may well have gladly killed us all. We don’t know. What we do know is this: when suicidal murderers really go all in, technology is the force multiplier. Here’s an example. Several years back, there was a rash
of 10 mass school attacks in China carried out with things
like knives and hammers and cleavers, because guns are really hard to get there. By macabre coincidence,
this last attack occurred just hours before the massacre
in Newtown, Connecticut. But that one American attack killed
roughly the same number of victims as the 10 Chinese attacks combined. So we can fairly say,
knife: terrible; gun: way worse. And airplane: massively worse, as pilot Andreas Lubitz showed
when he forced 149 people to join him in his suicide, smashing a plane into the French Alps. And there are other examples of this. And I’m afraid there are far more deadly
weapons in our near future than airplanes, ones not made of metal. So let’s consider the apocalyptic
dynamics that will ensue if suicidal mass murder hitches a ride
on a rapidly advancing field that for the most part holds
boundless promise for society. Somewhere out there in the world,
there’s a tiny group of people who would attempt, however ineptly, to kill us all if they
could just figure out how. The Vegas shooter may or may not
have been one of them, but with seven and a half billion of us, this is a nonzero population. There’s plenty of suicidal
nihilists out there. We’ve already seen that. There’s people with severe mood disorders
that they can’t even control. There are people who have just suffered
deranging traumas, etc. etc. As for the corollary group, its size was simply zero forever
until the Cold War, when suddenly, the leaders
of two global alliances attained the ability to blow up the world. 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. (Laughter) 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. And by the way, Dr. Keim also said this — [“I don’t think anthrax
is scary at all compared to this.”] And he’s also one of these. [Anthrax expert] (Laughter) Now, the good news about the 2011 biohack is that the people who did it
didn’t mean us any harm. They’re virologists. They believed they were advancing science. The bad news is that technology
does not freeze in place, and over the next few decades, their feat will become trivially easy. In fact, it’s already way easier,
because as we learned yesterday morning, just two years after they did their work, the CRISPR system was harnessed
for genome editing. This was a radical breakthrough that makes gene editing
massively easier — so easy that CRISPR
is now taught in high schools. And this stuff is moving
quicker than computing. That slow, stodgy white line up there? That’s Moore’s law. That shows us how quickly
computing is getting cheaper. That steep, crazy-fun green line, that shows us how quickly
genetic sequencing is getting cheaper. Now, gene editing
and synthesis and sequencing, they’re different disciplines,
but they’re tightly related. And they’re all moving
in these headlong rates. And the keys to the kingdom
are these tiny, tiny data files. That is an excerpt of H5N1’s genome. The whole thing can fit
on just a few pages. And yeah, don’t worry, you can Google this
as soon as you get home. It’s all over the internet, right? And the part that made it contagious could well fit on a single Post-it note. And once a genius makes a data file, any idiot can copy it, distribute it worldwide or print it. And I don’t just mean print it on this, but soon enough, on this. So let’s imagine a scenario. Let’s say it’s 2026,
to pick an arbitrary year, and a brilliant virologist,
hoping to advance science and better understand pandemics, designs a new bug. It’s as contagious as chicken pox, it’s as deadly as Ebola, and it incubates for months and months
before causing an outbreak, so the whole world can be infected
before the first sign of trouble. Then, her university gets hacked. And of course,
this is not science fiction. In fact, just one recent US indictment documents the hacking
of over 300 universities. So that file with the bug’s genome on it
spreads to the internet’s dark corners. And once a file is out there,
it never comes back — just ask anybody who runs
a movie studio or a music label. So now maybe in 2026, it would take a true genius
like our virologist to make the actual living critter, but 15 years later, it may just take a DNA printer
you can find at any high school. And if not? Give it a couple of decades. So, a quick aside: Remember this slide here? Turn your attention to these two words. If somebody tries this
and is only 0.1 percent effective, eight million people die. That’s 2,500 9/11s. Civilization would survive, but it would be permanently disfigured. So this means we need
to be concerned about anybody who has the faintest shot on goal, not just geniuses. So today, there’s a tiny
handful of geniuses who probably could make a doomsday bug that’s .1-percent effective
and maybe even a little bit more. They tend to be stable and successful
and so not part of this group. So I guess I’m sorta kinda
barely OK-ish with that. But what about after technology improves and diffuses and thousands of life science
grad students are enabled? Are every single one of them
going to be perfectly stable? Or how about a few years after that, where every stress-ridden
premed is fully enabled? At some point in that time frame, these circles are going to intersect, because we’re now starting to talk about
hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world. And they recently included that guy
who dressed up like the Joker and shot 12 people to death
at a Batman premiere. That was a neuroscience PhD student with an NIH grant. OK, plot twist: I think we can actually survive this one
if we start focusing on it now. And I say this, having spent
countless hours interviewing global leaders in synbio and also researching their work
for science podcasts I create. I have come to fear their work, in case
I haven’t gotten that out there yet — (Laughter) but more than that,
to revere its potential. This stuff will cure cancer,
heal our environment and stop our cruel treatment
of other creatures. So how do we get all this without,
you know, annihilating ourselves? First thing: like it or not,
synbio is here, so let’s embrace the technology. If we do a tech ban, that would only hand
the wheel to bad actors. Unlike nuclear programs, biology can be practiced invisibly. Massive Soviet cheating
on bioweapons treaties made that very clear, as does every
illegal drug lab in the world. Secondly, enlist the experts. Let’s sign them up and make more of them. For every million and one
bioengineers we have, at least a million of them
are going to be on our side. I mean, Al Capone
would be on our side in this one. The bar to being a good guy
is just so low. And massive numerical
advantages do matter, even when a single bad guy
can inflict grievous harm, because among many other things, they allow us to exploit
the hell out of this: we have years and hopefully decades
to prepare and prevent. The first person to try something awful —
and there will be somebody — may not even be born yet. Next, this needs to be an effort
that spans society, and all of you need to be a part of it, because we cannot ask
a tiny group of experts to be responsible for both containing
and exploiting synthetic biology, because we already tried that
with the financial system, and our stewards became
massively corrupted as they figured out
how they could cut corners, inflict massive, massive risks
on the rest of us and privatize the gains, becoming repulsively wealthy while they stuck us
with the $22 trillion bill. And more recently — (Applause) Are you the ones who have gotten
the thank-you letters? I’m still waiting for mine. I just figured they were
too busy to be grateful. And much more recently, online privacy started looming
as a huge issue, and we basically outsourced it. And once again: privatized gains, socialized losses. Is anybody else sick of this pattern? (Applause) So we need a more inclusive way
to safeguard our prosperity, our privacy and soon, our lives. So how do we do all of this? Well, when bodies fight pathogens, they use ingenious immune systems, which are very complex and multilayered. Why don’t we build one of these
for the whole damn ecosystem? There’s a year of TED Talks that could
be given on this first critical layer. So these are just a couple
of many great ideas that are out there. Some R and D muscle could take the very primitive
pathogen sensors that we currently have and put them on a very steep
price performance curve that would quickly become ingenious and networked and gradually as widespread
as smoke detectors and even smartphones. On a very related note: vaccines have all kinds of problems when it comes to manufacturing
and distribution, and once they’re made, they can’t adapt
to new threats or mutations. We need an agile biomanufacturing base extending into every single pharmacy
and maybe even our homes. Printer technology for vaccines
and medicines is within reach if we prioritize it. Next, mental health. Many people who commit
suicidal mass murder suffer from crippling,
treatment-resistant depression or PTSD. We need noble researchers
like Rick Doblin working on this, but we also need the selfish jerks
who are way more numerous to appreciate the fact that acute
suffering will soon endanger all of us, not just those afflicted. Those jerks will then
join us and Al Capone in fighting this condition. Third, each and every one of us
can be and should be a white blood cell in this immune system. Suicidal mass murderers
can be despicable, yes, but they’re also terribly
broken and sad people, and those of us who aren’t
need to do what we can to make sure nobody goes unloved. (Applause) Next, we need to make
fighting these dangers core to the discipline
of synthetic biology. There are companies out there
that at least claim they let their engineers
spend 20 percent of their time doing whatever they want. What if those who hire bioengineers and become them give 20 percent of their time
to building defenses for the common good? Not a bad idea, right? (Applause) Then, finally: this won’t be any fun. But we need to let our minds
go to some very, very dark places, and thank you for letting me
take you there this evening. We survived the Cold War because every one of us understood
and respected the danger, in part, because we had spent decades telling ourselves terrifying ghost stories with names like “Dr. Strangelove” and “War Games.” This is no time to remain calm. This is one of those rare times
when it’s incredibly productive to freak the hell out — (Laughter) to come up with some ghost stories and use our fear as fuel
to fight this danger. Because, all these
terrible scenarios I’ve painted — they are not destiny. They’re optional. The danger is still kind of distant. And that means it will only befall us if we allow it to. Let’s not. Thank you very much for listening. (Applause)

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