column | the New York Times: A recipe for destruction

writing: by Ray Kurzweil
December 1, 2019

image | above
A 3D model of the lethal influenza virus.

— writing —

publication: the New York Times
story title: Recipe for Destruction
section: Opinion
authors: by Ray Kurzweil + Bill Joy
date: October 2005

note: This story is collected for the Kurzweil library.

Dear readers,

In my 2005 opinion piece for the New York Times, co-author Bill Joy and I discuss serious decisions that must be made by those in control of powerful technological + scientific data, know-how, and instrumentation. This event happened 15 years ago — but the issue is as important today as it was then.

While I’m a technology optimist, I’m also a pragmatist — I believe the future will evolve in a positive way as humanity remains diligent. The double-edged sword I talk about in my books is this: we must acknowledge the fact that technology is accelerating. And with that rapid increase in capability, we also must police the power that comes with it. And pay attention to the ever-increasing ease with which individuals can wield more impactful technology.

As I predicted in my books, and continue to observe in everyday life: everything is getting smarter, faster, and more capable. I support watchful organizations that aim to preserve the value we get from accelerating tech — while also guarding humanity’s safety. It will take both as we usher in the singularity.

Ray Kurzweil

— introduction —

by Ray Kurzweil + Bill Joy

After a decade of pains-taking research, federal + university scientists have re-constructed the 1918 influenza virus that killed 50 million people world-wide. Like the flu viruses now raising alarm bells in Asia, the 1918 virus was a bird flu that jumped directly to humans, the scientists reported. To shed light on how the virus evolved, the United States Department of Health + Human Services published the full genome of the 1918 influenza virus on the Internet in the GenBank data-base.

National Institutes of Health • US | data-base: GenBank
deck: published by the National Library of Medicine

This is extremely foolish. The genome is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. No responsible scientist would advocate publishing precise designs for an atomic bomb, and in 2 ways revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous.

— 1. —

First: it would be easier to create + release this highly destructive virus from the genetic data than it would be to build + detonate an atomic bomb given only its design — because you don’t need rare raw materials such as plutonium or enriched uranium. Synthesizing the virus from scratch would be difficult, but far from impossible. An easier approach would be to modify a conventional flu virus — with the 8 unique (and now published) genes of the year 1918 killer virus.

— 2. —

Second: release of the virus would be far worse than an atomic bomb. Analyses have shown that the detonation of an atomic bomb in a modern city could kill as many as 1 million people. Release of a highly communicable and deadly biological virus could kill 10s of millions, with some estimates in the 100s of millions.

A Science magazine writer named Jocelyn Kaiser said: “Both the authors and Science’s editors acknowledge concerns that terrorists could — in theory — use the info to re-construct the year 1918 flu virus.” And yet the journal required that the full genome sequence be made available on the GenBank database as a condition for publishing the paper.

Proponents of publishing this data point-out that valuable insights have been gained from the virus’s re-creation. These insights could help scientists across the world detect and defend against future pandemics, including avian flu.

— other approaches —

However, there are other approaches for sharing the scientifically useful info. Specific insights — for example, that a key mutation noted in one gene may in part explain the virus’s unusual virulence — could be published without disclosing the complete genetic recipe. The precise genome could potentially be shared with scientists with suitable security assurances.

We urgently need international agreements by scientific organizations to limit such publications and an international dialogue on the best approach to preventing recipes for weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands. Part of that discussion should concern the appropriate role of governments, scientists and their scientific societies, and industry.

We also need a new Manhattan Project to develop specific defenses against new biological viral threats, natural or human made. There are promising new technologies, like RNA interference, that could be harnessed. We need to put more stones on the defensive side of the scale.

We realize that calling for this genome to be “un-published” is a bit like trying to gather the horses back into the barn. Perhaps we will be lucky this time, and we will indeed succeed in developing defenses for these killer flu viruses before they are needed. We should, however, treat the genetic sequences of pathological biological viruses with no less care than designs for nuclear weapons.

image | above
A 3D model of the lethal influenza virus.

— about the authors —

the op-ed contributors

Ray Kurzweil
bio: pioneering inventor, fuuurist, and best-selling author

Bill Joy PhD
bio: founder + former chief scientist at Sun MicroSystems
bio: partner at Kleiner Perkins

on the web | reading

Wired | Why the future doesn’t need us
author: by Bill Joy

Al Jazeera | Bill Joy: battling climate change one investment at a time
deck: The tech legend’s innovations laid the foundations of the modern internet.
deck: Now he’s working to save the planet.

— notes —

3D = 3-dimensional
op-ed = opinion + editorial
flu = influenza
US = United States

KPCB = Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers — currently known-as Kleiner Perkins

Bill Joy is William Nelson Joy