Tag Archives: doomsday

Why Biological Weapons Will Be A (MUCH) Bigger Threat In The Future

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It wasn’t too long ago that the biggest existential threat facing humanity was nuclear war. I’ve noted before how distressingly close we’ve come to a nuclear disaster and how the threat of a nuclear holocaust is still present. However, that threat has abated in recent decades, especially as nuclear weapons have gotten so destructive that their use is somewhat redundant.

More recently, people have become more concerned about the threat posed by advanced artificial intelligence. The idea is that at some point, an AI will become so intelligent and capable that we won’t be able to stop it in the event it decides that humanity must go extinct. It’s the basis of every Terminator movie, as well as an Avengers movie.

While I certainly have my concerns about the dangers of advanced artificial intelligence, it’s not the threat that worries me most these days. We still have some measure of control over the development of AI and we’re in a good position to guide that technology down a path that won’t destroy the human race. The same cannot be said for biological weapons.

If there’s one true threat that worries me more with each passing day, it’s that. Biological weapons are one of those major threats that does not slip under the radar, as evidenced by plenty of movies, books, and TV shows. However, the extent of that threat has become more understated in recent years and has the potential to be something more powerful than nuclear weapons.

By powerful, I don’t necessarily mean deadlier. At the end of the day, nuclear weapons are still more capable of rendering the human race extinct and turning the whole planet into a radioactive wasteland. The true power of biological weapons less about how deadly they can be and more about how useful they could be to potential governments, tyrants, or extremists.

For most of human history, that power has been limited. There’s no question that disease has shaped the course of human history. Some plagues are so influential that they mark major turning points for entire continents. The same can be said for our ability to treat such diseases. However, all these diseases had one fatal flaw that kept them from wiping out the human race.

Thanks to the fundamental forces of evolution, a deadly pathogen can only be so deadly and still survive. After all, an organism’s ultimate goal isn’t to kill everything it encounters. It’s to survive and reproduce. It can’t do that if it kills a carrier too quickly. If it’s too benign, however, then the carrier’s immune system will wipe it out.

That’s why even diseases as deadly as Ebola and Influenza can only be so infectious. If they kill all their hosts, then they die with them. That’s why, much to the chagrin of creationists, evolution doesn’t favor the natural emergence of apocalyptic diseases. They can still devastate the human race, but they can’t necessarily wipe it out. It would only wipe itself out in the process and most lifeforms avoid that.

It’s also why the large-scale biological weapons programs of the 20th century could only be so effective. Even if a country manufactured enough doses of an existing disease to infect every person on the planet, it won’t necessarily be deadly enough to kill everyone. Even at its worst, smallpox and bubonic plague never killed more than two-thirds of those it infected.

That’s not even factoring in how difficult it is to distribute these pathogens to everyone without anyone noticing. It’s even harder today because powerful governments invest significant resources into preventing and containing an outbreak. If large numbers of people start getting sick and dropping dead at a rapid rate, then someone will notice and take action.

That’s why, for the most part, biological weapons are both ethically untenable and not very useful as weapons of mass destruction. They’re difficult to control, difficult to distribute, and have unpredictable effects. They also require immense resources, considerable technical know-how, and a keen understanding of science. Thankfully, these are all things that extreme religious zealots tend to lack.

For the most part, these powerful constraints have kept biological weapons from being too great a threat. However, recent advances in biotechnology could change that and it’s here where I really start to worry. With recent advances in gene-editing and the emergence of tools like CRISPR, those limitations that kept biological weapons in check may no longer be insurmountable.

While I’ve done plenty to highlight all the good that tools like CRISPR could do, I don’t deny that there are potential dangers. Like nuclear weapons, this technology is undeniably powerful and powerful technology always carries great risks. With CRISPR, the risks aren’t as overt as obvious as fiery mushroom clouds, but they can be every bit as deadly.

In theory, CRISPR makes it possible to cut and paste genetic material with the same ease as arranging scattered puzzle pieces. With right materials and tools, this technology could be used to create genetic combinations in organisms that could never occur naturally or even with artificial selection.

Imagine a strain of smallpox that was lethal 100 percent of the time and just as infectious.

Imagine a strain of the flu that was as easy to spread as the common cold, but as deadly as bubonic plague.

Imagine a strain of an entirely new pathogen that is extremely lethal and completely immune to all modern medicine.

These are all possible, albeit exceedingly difficult, with genetic editing. Unlike nuclear weapons, it doesn’t require the procurement of expensive and dangerous elements. It just needs DNA, RNA, and a lab with which to produce them. It’s a scary idea, but that’s actually not the worst of it, nor is it the one that worries me most.

A doomsday bioweapon like that might be appealing to generic super-villains, but like nuclear weapons, they’re not very strategic because they kill everyone and everything. For those with a more strategic form of blood-lust, advanced biological weapons offer advantages that sets them apart from any other weapon.

Instead of a pathogen infecting everyone it comes into contact with, what if it only infected a certain group of people that carry a specifics traits associated with a particular race or ethnic group? What if someone wanted to be even more strategic than that and craft a pathogen that attacked only one specific person?

In principle, this is possible if you can manipulate the genetics of a disease in just the right way. Granted, it’s extremely difficult, but the potential utility makes it more useful than a nuclear bomb will ever be.

Suddenly, a government or terrorist organization doesn’t need a skilled assassin on the level of James Bond to target a specific person or group. They just need the right genetic material and a working knowledge of how to program it into a synthetic pathogen. It could even be made to look like a completely different disease, which ensured it didn’t raise any red flags.

It’s not the ultimate weapon, but it’s pretty darn close. Biological weapons with this level of refinement could potentially target entire groups of people and never put the attackers at risk. As a strategy, it can effectively end an entire conflict without a shot being fired. Those infected wouldn’t even know it was fired if the pathogen were effectively distributed.

It’s one of those weapons that both terrorists and governments would be tempted to use. The most distressing part is they could use it in a way that’s difficult to detect, let alone counter. Even after all the death and destruction has been wrought, how do you even prove that it was a result of a bioweapon? Even if you could prove that, how would you know who made it?

These are the kinds of questions that only have disturbing answers. They’re also the reasons why I believe biological weapons are poised to become a far bigger issue in the coming years. Even if it’s unlikely they’ll wipe out the human race, they can still cause a special kind of destruction that’s almost impossible to counter.

Unlike any other weapon, though, the destruction could be targeted, undetectable, and unstoppable. Those who wield this technology would have the power to spread death with a level of precision and tact unprecedented in human history. While I believe that humanity will eventually be able to handle dangerous technology like artificial intelligence, I doubt it’ll ever be capable of handling a weapon like that.

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Filed under biotechnology, CRISPR, Current Events, futurism, technology

How To Know When A Crisis Is (NOT) A Crisis

Anyone who watches the news for more than 15 minutes will probably hear about some dire new crisis that’s going to utterly destroy society, their way of life, or the entire world.

One day, it’s some terrifying new disease. The other, it’s some environmental catastrophe. Every now and then, you’ll even get someone saying we’re creating the robots that will eventually kill us all. That, or we’re just seeing a trailer for a new “Terminator” movie. These days, it’s kind of hard to tell the difference.

There are so many unfolding catastrophes in this world. When you look at history, recent and ancient alike, and see how close we’ve come to destroying ourselves, it feels like a goddamn miracle that we’re still in one piece. Thanks to the news, the internet, and Roland Emmerich movies, it feels like any day could be the day where aliens, asteroids, and earthquakes decide humanity’s run is over.

However, that day hasn’t come. Aliens, diseases, and global warming hasn’t killed us yet. Can we at least stop for a moment to appreciate that? Whether it’s the news media, disaster movies, or boredom, most people don’t realize just how much progress we’ve made as a species. We realize even less that the driving force behind that progress is something that will also solve future problems.

It’s kind of our not-so-dirty secret-that-shouldn’t-be-a-secret. We’re all so used to hearing about a new crisis that we should worry about, but we rarely hear about the solutions. We hear even less about the problems that humanity actually solved because who wants to hear about those? It’s not like human triumph sells or anything.

I could go on for multiple post about how fear is a lucrative industry, from slasher movies to stories about bear attacks. I’d rather give people a sense of hope and leave the depressing nihilism to street preachers, cable news, and grunge rock. Instead, I want to focus on the secret weapon that humanity has to solve a major crisis.

For a point of reference, let me list a few major problems that once filled humanity with an existential dread, only to be solved to the widespread cheers of no one.

Remember the dire threat we faced when a hole in the ozone layer formed in the arctic? Well, we’ve largely solved that problem.

Remember the dire threat we faced with acid rain? We solved that too.

Remember when AIDS, SARS, and bird flu were deemed the plague that would wipe out humanity? Well, thanks to modern medicine, we’ve either solved it or contained it.

Remember how for most of human history, we were always just one bad harvest away from a horrific famine? Well, most people don’t remember that, but we solved that problem anyway.

Then, there are the ongoing problems that we haven’t solved, but are making considerable progress. Every now and then, we’ll be reminded that it’s still a problem, but we’ll rarely acknowledge the progress. Make no mistake, though. That progress is there.

Issues like climate change are still a problem. Thanks to the growth of green energy and improvements in efficiency, we’re making slow, yet steady progress.

Issues like factory farming, over-fishing, and the animal cruelty that goes with it is a problem. We’re dealing with that too through advances in synthetic meats and vertical farming.

Few issues generate as many headlines and/or first world guilt than global poverty. However, thanks to advances in modern economies and an unprecedented decline in war, the number of people living in poverty has decreased significantly.

Again, you probably don’t hear about these stories and it’s not just because fear sells better than hope. A lot of these problems weren’t solved overnight with a single, brilliant idea. That may work in reruns of “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” but that’s not how real progress works.

Real progress takes time. It happens gradually. It’s like a shoulder massage that turns into an orgy at the Playboy Mansion. It doesn’t happen all at once. We don’t entirely understand how we get there. We just stop thinking about it and enjoy the fruits of that progress.

That’s entirely understandable. When you find yourself in a room with Channing Tatum, High Jackman, and a half-dozen naked bikini models, you tend not to care how you got there. You just smile, take your clothes off, and start enjoying yourself.

Now, I’m all for getting naked and enjoying the moment as much as the next guy. Put me in a room where dancing, nudity, and cold beer are all celebrated and I’ll be the first to overlook whatever progress led me there. However, I think it’s worth taking a moment to understand when a crisis is truly dire.

I don’t deny for a second that when the problems I mentioned above were first explored, they seemed pretty damn daunting. Anyone who knows the history of famines, disease, or environmental catastrophes would’ve spent an hour or so in the fetal position listening to old Evanescence songs.

Then, once the dread wears off and the music gets old, those same people would’ve gotten up, rolled up their sleeves, and gotten to work. That’s because, as fearful as we can be, we generally like living in a world that’s comfortable enough for life, love, and bacon-flavored lube.  We’re very motivated to work towards that kind of world and not just because we’re hungry, horny, or lonely.

So how do we do it? How does humanity solve these problems or even begin to solve them? How the hell is it that we’ve made as much progress as we have, especially over the last century? Moreover, how can we know whether humanity will solve all the other overwhelming problems we’re facing now?

These questions are all actually very easy to answer. In fact, I’ve even come up with a simple checklist that anyone can use to figure out whether a problem is solvable. When looking at a problem from afar, ask yourself the following three questions.

  1. Can the problem be solved with a new tool or an improvement to an existing tool?

  2. Would the tool that solves the problem violate the known laws of physics?

  3. Is there a non-zero incentive to make that tool?

If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, or even kind of, then go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief. That crisis, whatever it may be, will be solved in some form or another. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen in a single eureka moment. It’ll still happen though and for a very good reason.

Say what you will about the flaws in humanity. I certainly do on this blog, from the deficiencies in our bodies to our outdated marriage practices. However, there is one skill that humanity is objectively good at, so much so that it has made us the dominant species on this planet by an obscene margin.

We humans make awesome tools. We know how to build amazing things. Say what you will about a beaver dam, a spider web, or an ant colony. They don’t hold a candle to the Hoover Dam or a solar powered vibrator.

A lot of the seemingly unsolvable problems of the past were, for the most part, solved by tool. We developed cleaner, more efficient cars. We developed more efficient farming techniques. We developed more effective medicines.

That effort hasn’t stopped either. We’re still making newer and better tools every day. Tools like CRISPR could potentially cure hundreds of diseases. There may very well come a day where someone dying of genetic diseases will be as rare as someone dying of small pox.

Other tools, such as better batteries, more efficient light bulbs, and advances in nuclear power, will cut down on pollution and generate cleaner energy. Given the incentives to breathe clean air, as well as the massive profits to be made, we can expect those tools to put a major dent in the various environmental disasters that seem to crop up every single day.

Even problems on a smaller scale, such as head injuries in professional football, could be solved with better tools. The human brain, and the body as a whole, isn’t a rough-cut diamond that can never be repaired once flawed. It’s a hunk of malleable biomatter. Fixing it requires tools and make no mistake. Smart, well-paid people are working on it.

Thankfully, making tools is one of mankind’s greatest skills. To say a problem is insurmountable is like saying a sixth round draft pick from Michigan could never win five Super Bowls and marry a supermodel. Even if you hate Tom Brady’s guts, he is living proof that insurmountable obstacles are a relative, if not outright flawed concept.

Now, I don’t mean to say that humans will overcome everything. As soon as I post this article, a gamma ray burst from across the galaxy, a super volcano could erupt in Yellowstone, or an asteroid the size of Montana could crash into the planet, killing us all. These are major problems that we probably can’t solve, even with our awesome tools.

However, with all the doom-saying in the world and a new crisis emerging at least once a week, let’s not let humanity’s strength’s overshadow its flaws. Let’s not cower in fear when we don’t have to.

If a problem can be solved by a tool, then we humans are uniquely equipped to solve it. If there’s time, motivation, and resources to work with, we’ll solve it eventually. It may take a while and involve many setbacks, but we’ll eventually succeed. Lions maul zebras. Terminators terminate their targets. Humans build awesome tools to solve big problems. That’s something to be proud of.

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