Daniel Suarez Says In New Book That Gene Engineering, Not Artificial Intelligence Is The Next Big Threat: No One Is Prepared For An Era, When Editing DNA Is As Easy As Editing A Microsoft Word Document
“The successors to Silicon Valley will be in Singapore, Hong Kong, Mumbai — and, in places where cops are corrupt, governments weak, and criminal organizations old and powerful.” Tom Shippey
You had to figure it was only a matter of time. As governments and private entities move towards ‘stronger’ digital authentication methods in order to try and prevent identity theft, or worse — the darker angels of our nature are always looking for ways around these firewalls and barriers so they can continue their often lucrative cyber theft operations. In Daniel Suarez’s new book, ‘Change Agent,’ reviewed by Tom Shippey in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal — gene engineering may offer those darker angels a technique to overcome and/or fool the very authentication methods that are supposed to verify that we are who we say we are.
Mr. Shippey begins, “the basic question in science fiction is always — “What’s next?” “We’ve had three industrial revolutions so far — first steam, then electricity, then computing; and, each one has been bigger than the last. “In Change Agent,” Mr. Shippey writes, Daniel Suarez thinks he knows. Not nanotechnology, not 3-D printing, not artificial intelligence, but gene engineering.”
According to the definition provided on Google, Gene engineering, also called genetic modification, is the direct manipulation of an organisms genome, using biotechnology. It is a set of technologies used to change the genetic makeup of cells, including the transfer of genes within, and across species boundaries — to produce improved, or novel organisms. Of course, the darker angels may well use this technology to unleash an existential bug that could wipe out half the world’s population or worse.
“It has started already,” Mr. Shippey notes. “Improved crops to feed a hungry world; gene-tweaking to cut out hereditary disorders like hemophilia or cystic fibrosis, all well-intentioned, and potentially beneficial. But, if you can alter an embryo’s DNA to excise defects, why not do the same to splice in improvements? If parents could give their child genes for longevity, improved intelligence, superior physiques, who would deny them the chance to show paternal love? Where’s the downside?,” Mr. Shippey asks
Ken Durand is an analyst for Interpol’s Global Complex for Innovation, “and as he explains to his daughter, there are risks even in the procedure that created her pet “toyger,” Mr. Shippey writes. “Quite what genes do is never certain, side effects are bound to happen, and the only way to create safe procedures is by trial and error. Experimentation on human embryos to see how they develop? You’ll get failures, and what do you do with the discards? As one of Durand’s associates, a genetic mistake himself points out, “Mother Nature has a hell of a backhand.”
“One result of the downside is that the next industrial revolution won’t happen in America, where rules on experimentation are strictly enforced; and, where half the population has still not accepted the idea of natural evolution, let alone artificial intelligence,” Mr. Shippey wrote “Nor in sclerotic, over-managed Europe. The successors to Silicon Valley will be in Singapore, Hong Kong, Mumbai — and, in places where cops are corrupt, governments weak, and criminal organizations old and powerful.”
“In particular,” Mr. Shippey wrote, “the ‘Huli-jing,’ headed by mastermind and ruling cartel who seem to be immortal. Durand is on their trail; but, they strike first, in a way that will stun even hardened readers of sci-fi. Long ago, Larry Niven imagined what “organleggers,” could do in a way of disguising identity — but, people who have worked out how to edit the DNA of adults, not just single fertilized cells — they can take identity theft to a different dimension.”
“Soon Durand is on the run, no longer a hunter, but one of the hunted, in the new underworld of bio-hacker bars, crypto-currencies, and climate refugees. Some of it looks very old. War, and global warming have made human raw material cheap and plentiful. Offshore container ships have been turned into “hulks,” not for POWs; but, for slave factory sweatshops. Remember “LA Confidential,” and the film star look-alikes created by plastic surgery? Not to mention child-labor “Worker Bees,” child soldiers with fear and compassion edited out of their genes, and whole subspecies of sociopaths,” Mr. Shippey warns.
“Even worse,” Mr. Shippey notes, “is “Otto” the Huli jings enforcer. Guard dogs flee in terror when they scent him, his slightest touch causes intense pain; and, as he walks by, birds fall dead out of the sky. He’s a leftover from a canceled biodefense project. But, has it really been canceled?,” Mr. Shippey asks.
“Biopunk has been waiting for William Gibson, to bring a whole new vision of the future, as Mr. Gibson did for cyberpunk, and Daniel Suarez has done it. The central story is riveting — when you think of Ken Durand, think also of Alfred Bester’s Gully Foyle, the anguished hero of “The Stars My Destination” with his flaring tattoos,” Mr. Shippey wrote.
“Even more compelling,” Mr. Shippey wrote, “is the imagined background, the “agritowers” or vertical hydroponics farms, the “pharmatowers,” the drug printing, car bodies grown from chitin (the protein in insects’ exoskeletons), the “deathless” meat grown from cultures, so we can all turn “degan.” Mich of it looks pretty good….and, it’s coming.”
“But, so is the Post-Identity world,” Mr. Shippey observes. “One day, we will all have to copyright and own our own DNA, or it will be stolen. Exhilarating, alarming — Daniel Suarez plays the two great thrills of sci-fi against each other, and not just for fun. He thinks this is coming, and he means it. Read it, and wonder,” Mr. Shippy ends.
How Big A Threat Is Genetic Engineering; And, Some Unintended By-Products
Just how much a threat genetic engineering poses to mankind is anyone’s guess. Would a rouge nation, group, or individual really ‘invent’ a doomsday bug and potentially kill hundreds of millions, if not a billion people? If a group can burn people alive, throw them off roof-tops, cut off their heads and so on — it doesn’t seem much of a leap to believe they would unleash hell on Earth by developing and releasing a doomsday bug. But, just how easy, or hard is it to genetically alter a gene and transform a deadly virus into a potential existential threat? The answer is unfortunately….not all that hard.
In January 2017, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) issued a report and warned that “Genetic engineering poses an unprecedented threat to the world.” Then in February, during the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper’s annual threat assessment testimony to Congress, DNI Clapper added “gene editing to a list of threats posed by ‘weapons of mass destruction and proliferation (WMD).”
In the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ‘s (MIT’s) February 9, 2017 edition of the MIT Technology Review, Antonio Regalado wrote that ‘it is gene editing’s relative ease of use that worries the U.S. intelligence community.” The NIC assessment warned that “given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate, or unintentional misuse — might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications.”
“Although the report does not mention CRISPR by name,” Mr. Regalado wrote, DNI “Clapper clearly had the newest and the most versatile of the gene-editing systems in mind. The CRISPR technique’s low cost, and relative ease of use — the basic ingredients can be bought online for $60 — seems to have spooked intelligence agencies,” he noted. “Research in genomic editing conducted by countries with different regulatory, or ethical standards than those of Western countries, probably increases the risk of potentially harmful biological agents, or products,” the report concluded.
New Gene Editing Technology Is Cheap & Easy To Do — And, No One Is Prepared For The Consequences
Unfortunately, one does not have to be a microbiologist, or virologist to create a doomsday bug such as the one that killed millions in the mid -1300s. Vivek Wadhwa, wrote in the September 8, 2015 edition of the Singularity Hub, that “until recently, editing DNA required sophisticated labs, years of experience, and many thousands of dollars,” not to mention a degree in microbiology, virology, etc But, not anymore. “The use of clustered, regularly inter-spaced, short, palindromic repeats, or CRISPRs, discovered by scientists just a few years ago,” has leveled the playing field, so to speak — so that someone with little knowledge and experience in biology, etc., can easily create a doomsday bug.
“CRISPRs are elements of an ancient system that protects bacteria, and other, single-celled organisms from viruses, acquiring immunity to them by incorporating genetic elements from the virus invaders,” Mr. Wadhwa wrote. “And, this bacterial, antiviral defense serves as an astonishingly cheap, simple, elegant way to quickly edit the DNA of any organism in the lab. To set up a CRISPR editing capability, a lab only needs to order an RNA fragment (costing about $10) and purchase off-the-shelf chemicals and enzymes for $30 or less.”
“Because CRISPR is cheap, and easy to use, it has both revolutionized, and democratized genetic research,” Mr. Wadhwa observes. “Hundreds, if not thousands of labs are now experimenting with CRISPR-based editing projects.” And, access to the WorldWide Web, provides instantaneous know-how, for a would-be terrorist — bent on killing hundreds of millions of people. As Mr. Wadhwa warns, “though a nuclear weapon can cause tremendous, long-lasting damage, the ultimate biological doomsday machine — is bacteria, because they can spread so quickly, and quietly.”
“No one is prepared for an era, when editing DNA is as easy as editing a Microsoft Word document.”
This observation, and warning, is why the current scientific efforts aimed at developing a vaccine for the plague; and, hopefully courses of action for any number of doomsday biological weapons. With the proliferation of drones as a potential method of delivery, the threat seems overwhelming. Even if we are successful in eradicating the world of the cancer known as militant Islam, there would still be the demented soul, bent on killing as many people as possible, in the shortest amount of time, no matter if their doomsday bug kills them as well. That’s why the research currently being done on the plague is so important.
As the science fiction/horror writer Stephen King once wrote “God punishes us for what we cannot imagine.” V/R, RCP