Skip to main content

Existential danger, but not from the drones you're thinking of...

Figure from recent paper on long genetic sequence reads using minION portal sequencers. Paper:

Saw this video about a month ago, it is very well done and paints a very dystopian and very unfortunately near term usage of this type of autonomous drone technology. Very Black Mirror.
About 5 years ago I wrote a short story set in a far future where advanced drone tech becomes part of the lethal kit deployed with each soldier ...allowing one Man to do the damage of an entire platoon or larger in a conventional military unit. I called this future of AI assistant killers for soldiers Sentinels and Snitches as used by Sargent Dunning Spitz on mission some where in Africa.
The rogue danger though is not just one that can come from the use of autonomous electronic systems that are weaponized we are arguably far more advanced in another area of technological advance right now...
autonomous weaponized biosystems.
I have been sounding the warning bells on that space for nearly 11 years now, the advance of the sequencing of the human genome way back in 2000 was my trigger to start thinking more deeply about the possible nefarious uses for that tech.
At the time we were far from being able to harness what was then simply being able to sequence a human genome ...and at great cost...but I knew that such an ability would quickly fall int a Moore's law like advance rate...sure enough, here we are barely 18 years later and the cost for a full sequence is down to a $1,000.
That's a factor of cost reduction of 1,000,000 for those bad at math...WAY faster than Moore's law.
The advances in speed primarily coming from the usage of clever parallel sequencing systems that group sequence large batches using robotic rigs instead of manually by human error prone hands....just last week I attended a talk at the NY Human Genome Center in midtown where a researcher talked about their pending switch over to using the new minION portable sequencing machines...
Why is this of concern?
Well you may recall in my ravings from the mid 2007 time frame about an advance that happened called iPSC, it was a response to Bush II's near sighted ban on embryonic stem cells in the states. Researchers used stem cells at the time as critical source of pluripotent starter cells for testing hypothesis regarding disease pathophysiology. Faster testing means faster iteration of a theory and faster discovery of disease states that can then lead to more targeted treatments...well this is a broad based advance that helps developing other things as well just just cures for disease especially should the holy grail of error free genome editing be found...
now in 2007 it was still a dream...but it wasn't barely 2 years later...when a method called Zinc fingers was being leveraged to effect small percentage gene editing in pitri dishes, by 2010 a new method joined it called TALENS and then astonishing even to me (I was predicting this stuff in my blog) in 2012 a team of researchers published a paper on a method leveraging a technology called CRISPR Cas9 to perform gene edits with much higher accuracy (on target specificity) and completion. In that time the explosion of papers in the area has been dramatic and the advances numerous.
Now there is CRISPR Cas9 , Cas13, C2C2, CPF1 and a half dozen other new molecular toolkits with various advantages and disadvantages but all with the ability to enable laser like identification of genetic sequences in a living organism and then replacement of those sequences with a desired sequence or simply just changing genes specifically.
Here's my science papers sub folder for genetics and microbiology, the new gene editing tech. have their own subfolders...note the variety:
:All just from the last 5 years.
It should be clear now why this is more terrifying than robo death means that we now have the ability to create the monsters of our movies from decades gone by but deploy them silently and much more widely than any fleet of drones....the only barrier now is the massive massive data set of knowledge regarding gene location (sequencing still is onging across species) and gene function (we are still figuring out what does what as well as where it is).
But have no fear to the rescue to solve this problem (also something I predicted in the last decade) comes advanced machine learning technology...this completely independent of the advances happening in biotechnology but surely now being used there (the genetic sequencing kits that 23andMe send out are processed using a method that employs a machine learning model to generate the admixture break down). Machine learning is particularly good at solving exactly the kind of problem being created by the massive data produced by small cheap sequencing's as if we got gifted at the same time...but the gift can be a curse.
Imagine a sufficiently driven person with the skill having access to low cost sequencing AND CrispR gene editing what can they do?
As I said, build monsters...and in their basements...they can.
What does this add up to in an age where we literally have a President capping for deluded white supremicists and speaking Sturm and Drang over imaginary Islamic terrorists when home grown white terrorists are far more active on American soil? What happens when one of these guys decides they want to weaponize a virus such that it only attacks people with a given sub sequence (say people with the gene variants that code for high melanin production?).
I painted a scenario of this sort but couched it in the middle east ...sort of out of spite since well we are causing all kinds of trouble there at the moment...the story is about a brilliant young Man possibly right now learning about exactly what I described above...but ravenously focused on using the biotech to effect a holy war...a zealot, indirectly made by Western hands, focused so to let fall the rain of Gods tears...
All this stuff has literally kept me up at night for years...but still some how I remain some what optimistic that we can overcome the greed of the super rich, the zealotry of the religiously ignorant to pull a win out of things for our species this year...I am a lot less optimistic but still hopeful.


Popular posts from this blog

On the idea of "world wide mush" resulting from "open" development models

A recent article posted in the Wall Street Journal posits that the collectivization of various types of goods or services created by the internet is long term a damaging trend for human societies.

I think that the author misses truths that have been in place that show that collectivization is not a process that started with the internet but has been with us since we started inventing things.

It seems that Mr. Lanier is not properly defining the contexts under which different problems can benefit or suffer from collectivization. He speaks in general terms of the loss of the potential for creators to extract profit from their work but misses that this is and was true of human civilization since we first picked up a rock to use as a crude hammer. New things make old things obsolete and people MUST adapt to what is displaced (be it a former human performance of that task or use of an older product) so as to main…

Engineers versus Programmers

I have found as more non formally trained people enter the coding space, the quality of code that results varies in an interesting way.

The formalities of learning to code in a structured course at University involve often strong focus on "correctness" and efficiency in the form of big O representations for the algorithms created.

Much less focus tends to be placed on what I'll call practical programming, which is the type of code that engineers (note I didn't use "programmers" on purpose) must learn to write.

Programmers are what Universities create, students that can take a defined development environment and within in write an algorithm for computing some sequence or traversing a tree or encoding and decoding a string. Efficiency and invariant rules are guiding development missions. Execution time for creating the solution is often a week or more depending on the professor and their style of teaching code and giving out problems. This type of coding is devo…

1905: Annus Mirabilus - Photo electric effect

1905 was a great year for physics, in this year a 24 year old patent examiner in Bern Switzerland published 4 fundamental papers in physics in 4 disparate areas of the field. The topics included special relativity, the relationship between energy and matter, brownian motion and the subject of this post, the photo electric effect.

The photo electric effect paper by Einstein was probably the most practical paper next to the brownian motion paper in that it provided an answer to a long standing problem in electromagnetic theory at the time that had stood as an embarrassment to particle physics. This embarrasment was a legacy of the work of James Clerk Maxwell and his fundamental equations of electromagnetism, by using a continuous wave analog to describe the energy of propagating fields Maxwell was able to do the astonishing, he explained the riddle that was the relationship between electricity and magnetism in clear mathematical terms and he was able to show how light must be itself an …