In an October 17, 2005 New York Times Op-Ed article titled Recipe for Destruction, Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy collaborated on the following article:
AFTER a decade of painstaking research, federal and university scientists have reconstructed the 1918 influenza virus that killed 50 million people worldwide. 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 and Human Services published the full genome of the 1918 influenza virus on the Internet in the GenBank database.This warning is the complete editorial from Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy. Considering how differently they view technology’s impact on our future it is remarkable that they are in such agreement on the dangerous potential for humanity’s destruction by robust lab designed pathogens. Ian Morris terms this a “Nightfall” scenario.
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.
A Science staff writer, Jocelyn Kaiser, said, “Both the authors and Science’s editors acknowledge concerns that terrorists could, in theory, use the information to reconstruct the 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 recreation. These insights could help scientists across the world detect and defend against future pandemics, including avian flu.
There are other approaches, however, to sharing the scientifically useful information. 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.
“For the Singularity to win, we need to keep the dogs of war on a leash, manage global weirding, and see through a revolution in energy capture. Everything has to go right. For Nightfall to win only one thing needs go wrong. The odds look bad.”
As I said in the preface, history is filled with doom scenarios. Nightfall is also a science fiction short story by Isaac Asimov published in 1968. The name refers to the coming of darkness to the people of a planet ordinarily illuminated at all times on all sides. Civil disorder breaks out; cities are destroyed in massive fires and civilization collapses, with the ashes of the fallen civilization and the competing groups trying to seize control. This famous story serves as an apt metaphor for other genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics ‘Nightfall’ scenarios we will discuss in the following chapters.
New York Times (Feb. 18, 2012) features a Page 1 story announcing that the World Health Organization is recommending that full details of the new lab created H5N1 flu virus be published.
A clear example that Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy's warning is both prophetic and that the controversy is now being debated in international forums.