Thursday, April 2, 2009

Inalienable Reality

Sustainable rights will reflect inalienable reality. Regardless of whether they should, they inevitably will.

Schoolchildren studying basic anthropology learn that sustainable social norms and institutions must be consistent with the culture’s values, environment and technology. Either they are consistent, they adapt or 'they' perish.

As technological change accelerates in often unexpected new directions, empowering nations, non-state players and even individuals with unprecedented genetic, robotic, infotech and nanotech capabilities, at some point we imperil those children as we ignore that basic, truly inalienable, reality.

This fact must eventually change the sustainability of personal privacy and liberty as we now know and cherish them. The question is not whether this argument sounds like a Luddite view which we dislike; our children's futures depend on whether this constraint is ever an objective reality and whether we are now approaching that point in time.

As political theorist John Gray wrote in 2002, "The development and spread of new weapons of mass destruction destruction is a side effect of the growth of knowledge interacting with primordial human needs... It will occur haphazardly, as part of competition and conflict among states, business corporations and criminal networks."

I would add that in our new world of globally disseminated technologies, it will not be sufficient that people abstain from super-empowered violence unless we globally, universally abstain. In a world with super-empowered individuals, the terms would be 'unanimity or catastrophe'. As understatement: homo rapacious has not yet done unanimity well.

The remaining question becomes one of urgency. Is this a 21st century danger when it has never yet been a problem before? As to just the biotechnology risks, consider this unanimous 2004 assessment sponsored by The National Academies of Science: “These categories represent experiments that are feasible with existing knowledge and technologies or with advances that the Committee could anticipate occurring in the near future.” The NAS reports' seven capabilities are to:
  1. “render a vaccine ineffective."
  2. “confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics or antiviral agents”.
  3. enhance the virulence of a pathogen or render a pathogen virulent”.
  4. “increase transmissibility of a pathogen.”
  5. "alter the host range of a pathogen.”
  6. “enable the evasion of diagnostic/detection modalities.”
  7. “enable the weaponization of a biological agent or toxin."

What would this mean? Would thousands of individuals and small groups soon become capable of anonymously releasing a universally drug resistant tuberculosis, a highly contagious 'bird' flu or a genetically selective plague? Is the National Academies of Science correct that this can be accomplished "with existing knowledge and technologies or with the near future”?

Who would do such a thing? Surely this world of six to eight billion people might eventually include one or more microbiologically-capable Ted Kaczynski, Tim McVeigh or Eric Rudolph? Is AZF building a microbiology lab where they may unleash what Royal Society President Sir Martin Rees aptly calls a "bioerror"?

For that matter, might Big Pharma or aspiring little pharma or a rogue state bioweapons lab themselves make a contagious, lethal bioerror? Is it possible that a US biodefense lab, whether private, academic or USAMARID, might (again?) employ a scientist who would release a deadly pathogen? Might it be a contagious disease next time?

If so, what does history, especially this last decade, indicate about how endangered political elites and frightened voters might react? Regarding our political rights, how low would they go?

What am I overlooking or oversimplifying? Are there technical limitations which the NAS Special Committee has underestimated? Are existing regulatory controls sufficient? Can we assume that the people with this new knowledge are universally committed to preventing misuse?

Alternatively, what can be done to build political will for addressing this issue?