- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

A disturbing modern trend is the growth and spread of technologies that are dangerous to humankind: nuclear weapons, guidance systems, genetic manipulation.

Many tech products are dangerous — advanced explosives, for example. But with these it is difficult to kill more than a few thousand people at a time.

The potential carnage quotient rises when such things as bioweapons are brought into play. Many millions of deaths come within reach, posing a crucial question for this century: Can technology be controlled?

Developments as prosaic as the illegal downloading of music suggest the answer is no.

The list of nuclear powers grows: The United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, apparently North Korea and, perhaps soon, Iran.

Today, a country doesn’t have to be a technological or industrial powerhouse to build a nuclear bomb. North Korea certainly isn’t. Once a nation has the bomb, attacking it becomes very dangerous. Pyongyang can’t hit the United States just now, but it could hit Seoul and the American bases in South Korea.

Bioweapons are another matter because they can be developed without the sponsorship, or knowledge, of any country. The danger is not that some psychopath will synthesize the smallpox virus next week in his basement.

Such projects run from exceedingly difficult to currently impossible. However, molecular biology advances rapidly. Countless universities teach the latest in biological manipulation. The necessary equipment is fairly cheap, getting more so all the time, and sold on the Internet.

What is impossible this week is next week’s breakthrough and then the following week’s project for graduate students, and then for undergraduates. Already there are hobbyist biomanipulators and Web sites for their use. DNAhack.com has step-by-step instructions for various processes.

Biotech Hobbyist Magazine is on the Web. None of this is evil in intent. Yet one wonders what, in a decade or two, will be possible to rogue molecular biologists with a couple of hundred thousand dollars, or much less, and a basement somewhere overseas.

In bioterrorism, the contest between bad guys and good guys is highly asymmetric: If it becomes possible with common lab equipment to synthesize truly dangerous viruses, it will be far easier to do than to prevent. There are a lot of basements in the world. Common lab gear is hard to control. People are seldom vaccinated these days, and countries are not prepared for massive epidemics.

Finally, there is the problem of cheap, simple, extremely accurate guidance systems. Global Positioning System sets today are easily available for not much more than a hundred dollars. They are accurate to within a few yards. They are also easily linked to controls for aircraft to guide them automatically to anywhere within the aircraft’s range.

Aerosonde.com sells for scientific purposes what amount to model airplanes with GPS auto-guidance. They can cross the Atlantic and come within a few feet of their intended destination.

Again, asymmetry. Air-defense systems are not designed to protect against small, slow, low-flying craft not coming from the direction of plausible attack by a national enemy.

We don’t know if any of this will come to pass. The direction of things, however, is toward making misbehavior easier and defense harder. Worse, the attackers can be individuals. Iran is unlikely to attack the United States. An Iranian molecular biologist, two Saudis, a Russian and a disaffected American might.



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