To publish or not to publish?
We've discussed this issue before in the context of whether it is dangerous -- or even irresponsible -- for CRN to publish what we know about the potential power of advanced nanotechnology, and the relative simplicity of developing it.
So far, we have always decided that publishing is our most responsible option. On some critical issues, however, that may not be the right answer.
Recently, for research purposes, federal and university scientists in the United States reconstructed the 1918 influenza virus that killed 50 million people worldwide. Then the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published the full genome of the virus on the Internet in the GenBank database.
Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy think that was a bad idea:
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 two ways revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous.
First, it would be easier to create and release this highly destructive virus from the genetic data than it would be to build and detonate an atomic bomb given only its design, as you don't need rare raw materials like 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 eight unique and now published genes of the 1918 killer virus.
Second, release of the virus would be far worse than an atomic bomb. Analyses have shown that the detonation of an atomic bomb in an American city could kill as many as one million people. Release of a highly communicable and deadly biological virus could kill tens of millions, with some estimates in the hundreds of millions.
In their op-ed piece today in the New York Times, Joy and Kurzweil discuss other options for sharing scientifically useful information.
But, they insist:
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.
This argument bears on recent discussions on this blog about appropriate restrictions, regulations, and control of information regarding the technology for exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing.
Also of interest in this regard is a study reported last week in the journal Science, showing that 20 percent of human genes have been patented in the United States, primarily by private firms and universities.
Researchers can patent genes because they are potentially valuable research tools, useful in diagnostic tests or to discover and produce new drugs.
"It might come as a surprise to many people that in the U.S. patent system human DNA is treated like other natural chemical products," said Fiona Murray, a business and science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and a co-author of the study.
We'll repeat, once again, that in this time of rapidly developing technology, there are no simple solutions to many of the ethical and safety issues. Instead of settling for fixed, easy answers, we owe it to ourselves to gain the best possible understanding of the potential for transformational change represented by these technologies, and then, in a setting of open dialogue and honest consideration of varying viewpoints, seek consensus for comprehensive, responsible, and workable solutions.