[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy: Recipe for Destruction

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Wed Oct 19 01:49:52 UTC 2005

New York Times Op-Ed, 5.10.17

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

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

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

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.

Ray Kurzweil,an inventor, is theauthor of "The Singularity is Near:
When Humans Transcend Biology." Bill Joy, founder and former chief
scientist of Sun Microsystems, is a partner at a venture-capital firm.

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