columnfor | the New York TimesA recipe for destruction.

by Ray Kurzweil
December 1, 2020

image | above

A 3D model of the influenza virus.

— contents —

~ letter
~ column
~ about
~ reading

— letter —

Dear readers,

In my 2005 opinion piece for the New York Times — co-author Bill Joy and I discuss serious issues that need to be handled by groups in control of powerful tech, data, know-how, and instrumentation. This event happened 15 years ago — but the issue is just as important today as it was then.

I’m a tech optimist, but I’m also a pragmatist — the future will be positive if humanity remains diligent. The double-duty I talk about in my books is this:

1. | We need to acknowledge that tech is accelerating.

2. | Because of that rapid increase in ability, we need to police the power that comes with it.

3. | We need to pay attention to the easier access people have to potentially dangerous tech.

I predicted in my books — and I continue to see this every day — everything is getting smarter, faster, and more capable. I support watchful organizations that promote innovation — while also guarding humanity’s safety. It will take both.

Ray Kurzweil

publication: the New York Times
story title: A recipe for destruction.
section: opinion
authors: by Ray Kurzweil + Bill Joy
date: October 2005

read | column

presented by

the New York Times | home
tag line:


column |

An introduction.

After a decade of difficult 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 Dept. of Health + Human Services published the full genome of the 1918 influenza virus on the web in the GenBank data-base.

institution: the National Institutes of Health | visit
data-base: GenBank | visit
deck: This data-base is published by the National Library of Medicine. | visit

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 revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous — in 2 ways.

— 1. —

First — it would be easier to create and 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 said valuable insights have been gained from the virus’s re-creation. These insights could help scientists across the world detect + defend against future pandemics, including avian flu.

Some other approaches.

But 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 influenza virus.

about | the authors

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

bio: AI visionary + primary researcher
company: Google

name: Bill Joy PhD
bio: chief scientist
firm: Water Street Capital

bio: founder + fmr. chief scientist
company: Sun MicroSystems

bio: fmr. partner
firm: Kleiner Perkins

select reading

1. |

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

read | story

presented by

Wired | home ~ channel
tag line:

2. |

from: Al Jazeera
story title: Bill Joy is battling climate change one investment at a time.

— summary —

The tech legend’s innovations laid the foundations of the modern internet. Now he’s working to save the planet.

read | story

presented by

Al Jazeera | web ~ channel
tag line: The opinion and the other opinion.


from the platform: Wikipedia

profile — Bill Joy | profile
profile — GenBank | profile

— notes —

3D = 3-dimensional
op-ed = opinion + editorial
flu = influenza
fmr. = former

US = United States