So, there's about seven and a half billion of us. The World Health Organization tells us that 300 million of us are depressed, and about 800,000 people take their lives every year. A tiny subset of them choose a profoundly nihilistic route, which is they die in the act of killing as many people as possible. These are some famous recent examples. And here's a less famous one. It happened about nine weeks ago. If you don't remember it, it's because there's a lot of this going on. Wikipedia just last year counted 323 mass shootings in my home country, the United States. Not all of those shooters were suicidal, not all of them were maximizing their death tolls, but many, many were.
An important question becomes: What limits do these people have? Take the Vegas shooter. He slaughtered 58 people. Did he stop there because he'd had enough? No, and we know this because he shot and injured another 422 people who he surely would have preferred to kill. We have no reason to think he would have stopped at 4,200. In fact, with somebody this nihilistic, he may well have gladly killed us all. We don't know. What we do know is this: when suicidal murderers really go all in, technology is the force multiplier.
Here's an example. Several years back, there was a rash of 10 mass school attacks in China carried out with things like knives and hammers and cleavers, because guns are really hard to get there. By macabre coincidence, this last attack occurred just hours before the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. But that one American attack killed roughly the same number of victims as the 10 Chinese attacks combined. So we can fairly say, knife: terrible; gun: way worse. And airplane: massively worse, as pilot Andreas Lubitz showed when he forced 149 people to join him in his suicide, smashing a plane into the French Alps.
And there are other examples of this. And I'm afraid there are far more deadly weapons in our near future than airplanes, ones not made of metal. So let's consider the apocalyptic dynamics that will ensue if suicidal mass murder hitches a ride on a rapidly advancing field that for the most part holds boundless promise for society. Somewhere out there in the world, there's a tiny group of people who would attempt, however ineptly, to kill us all if they could just figure out how. The Vegas shooter may or may not have been one of them, but with seven and a half billion of us, this is a nonzero population. There's plenty of suicidal nihilists out there. We've already seen that. There's people with severe mood disorders that they can't even control. There are people who have just suffered deranging traumas, etc. etc. As for the corollary group, its size was simply zero forever until the Cold War, when suddenly, the leaders of two global alliances attained the ability to blow up the world.
The number of people with actual doomsday buttons has stayed fairly stable since then. But I'm afraid it's about to grow, and not just to three. This is going off the charts. I mean, it's going to look like a tech business plan.
And the reason is, we're in the era of exponential technologies, which routinely take eternal impossibilities and make them the actual superpowers of one or two living geniuses and — this is the big part — then diffuse those powers to more or less everybody.
Now, here's a benign example. If you wanted to play checkers with a computer in 1952, you literally had to be that guy, then commandeer one of the world's 19 copies of that computer, then used your Nobel-adjacent brain to teach it checkers. That was the bar. Today, you just need to know someone who knows someone who owns a telephone, because computing is an exponential technology.
So is synthetic biology, which I'll now refer to as "synbio." And in 2011, a couple of researchers did something every bit as ingenious and unprecedented as the checkers trick with H5N1 flu. This is a strain that kills up to 60 percent of the people it infects, more than Ebola. But it is so uncontagious that it's killed fewer than 50 people since 2015. So these researchers edited H5N1's genome and made it every bit as deadly, but also wildly contagious. The news arm of one of the world's top two scientific journals said if this thing got out, it would likely cause a pandemic with perhaps millions of deaths. And Dr. Paul Keim said he could not think of an organism as scary as this, which is the last thing I personally want to hear from the Chairman of the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity. And by the way, Dr. Keim also said this —
["I don't think anthrax is scary at all compared to this."]
And he's also one of these.
[Anthrax expert] (Laughter)
Now, the good news about the 2011 biohack is that the people who did it didn't mean us any harm. They're virologists. They believed they were advancing science. The bad news is that technology does not freeze in place, and over the next few decades, their feat will become trivially easy. In fact, it's already way easier, because as we learned yesterday morning, just two years after they did their work, the CRISPR system was harnessed for genome editing. This was a radical breakthrough that makes gene editing massively easier — so easy that CRISPR is now taught in high schools. And this stuff is moving quicker than computing. That slow, stodgy white line up there? That's Moore's law. That shows us how quickly computing is getting cheaper. That steep, crazy-fun green line, that shows us how quickly genetic sequencing is getting cheaper. Now, gene editing and synthesis and sequencing, they're different disciplines, but they're tightly related. And they're all moving in these headlong rates. And the keys to the kingdom are these tiny, tiny data files. That is an excerpt of H5N1's genome. The whole thing can fit on just a few pages. And yeah, don't worry, you can Google this as soon as you get home. It's all over the internet, right? And the part that made it contagious could well fit on a single Post-it note. And once a genius makes a data file, any idiot can copy it, distribute it worldwide or print it. And I don't just mean print it on this, but soon enough, on this.
So let's imagine a scenario. Let's say it's 2026, to pick an arbitrary year, and a brilliant virologist, hoping to advance science and better understand pandemics, designs a new bug. It's as contagious as chicken pox, it's as deadly as Ebola, and it incubates for months and months before causing an outbreak, so the whole world can be infected before the first sign of trouble. Then, her university gets hacked. And of course, this is not science fiction. In fact, just one recent US indictment documents the hacking of over 300 universities. So that file with the bug's genome on it spreads to the internet's dark corners. And once a file is out there, it never comes back — just ask anybody who runs a movie studio or a music label. So now maybe in 2026, it would take a true genius like our virologist to make the actual living critter, but 15 years later, it may just take a DNA printer you can find at any high school. And if not? Give it a couple of decades.
So, a quick aside: Remember this slide here? Turn your attention to these two words. If somebody tries this and is only 0.1 percent effective, eight million people die. That's 2,500 9/11s. Civilization would survive, but it would be permanently disfigured. So this means we need to be concerned about anybody who has the faintest shot on goal, not just geniuses. So today, there's a tiny handful of geniuses who probably could make a doomsday bug that's .1-percent effective and maybe even a little bit more. They tend to be stable and successful and so not part of this group. So I guess I'm sorta kinda barely OK-ish with that. But what about after technology improves and diffuses and thousands of life science grad students are enabled? Are every single one of them going to be perfectly stable? Or how about a few years after that, where every stress-ridden premed is fully enabled? At some point in that time frame, these circles are going to intersect, because we're now starting to talk about hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world. And they recently included that guy who dressed up like the Joker and shot 12 people to death at a Batman premiere. That was a neuroscience PhD student with an NIH grant.
OK, plot twist: I think we can actually survive this one if we start focusing on it now. And I say this, having spent countless hours interviewing global leaders in synbio and also researching their work for science podcasts I create. I have come to fear their work, in case I haven't gotten that out there yet —
but more than that, to revere its potential. This stuff will cure cancer, heal our environment and stop our cruel treatment of other creatures. So how do we get all this without, you know, annihilating ourselves?
First thing: like it or not, synbio is here, so let's embrace the technology. If we do a tech ban, that would only hand the wheel to bad actors. Unlike nuclear programs, biology can be practiced invisibly. Massive Soviet cheating on bioweapons treaties made that very clear, as does every illegal drug lab in the world.
Secondly, enlist the experts. Let's sign them up and make more of them. For every million and one bioengineers we have, at least a million of them are going to be on our side. I mean, Al Capone would be on our side in this one. The bar to being a good guy is just so low. And massive numerical advantages do matter, even when a single bad guy can inflict grievous harm, because among many other things, they allow us to exploit the hell out of this: we have years and hopefully decades to prepare and prevent. The first person to try something awful — and there will be somebody — may not even be born yet.
Next, this needs to be an effort that spans society, and all of you need to be a part of it, because we cannot ask a tiny group of experts to be responsible for both containing and exploiting synthetic biology, because we already tried that with the financial system, and our stewards became massively corrupted as they figured out how they could cut corners, inflict massive, massive risks on the rest of us and privatize the gains, becoming repulsively wealthy while they stuck us with the $22 trillion bill.
And more recently —
Are you the ones who have gotten the thank-you letters? I'm still waiting for mine. I just figured they were too busy to be grateful.
And much more recently, online privacy started looming as a huge issue, and we basically outsourced it. And once again: privatized gains, socialized losses. Is anybody else sick of this pattern?
So we need a more inclusive way to safeguard our prosperity, our privacy and soon, our lives. So how do we do all of this?
Well, when bodies fight pathogens, they use ingenious immune systems, which are very complex and multilayered. Why don't we build one of these for the whole damn ecosystem? There's a year of TED Talks that could be given on this first critical layer. So these are just a couple of many great ideas that are out there.
Some R and D muscle could take the very primitive pathogen sensors that we currently have and put them on a very steep price performance curve that would quickly become ingenious and networked and gradually as widespread as smoke detectors and even smartphones. On a very related note: vaccines have all kinds of problems when it comes to manufacturing and distribution, and once they're made, they can't adapt to new threats or mutations. We need an agile biomanufacturing base extending into every single pharmacy and maybe even our homes. Printer technology for vaccines and medicines is within reach if we prioritize it.
Next, mental health. Many people who commit suicidal mass murder suffer from crippling, treatment-resistant depression or PTSD. We need noble researchers like Rick Doblin working on this, but we also need the selfish jerks who are way more numerous to appreciate the fact that acute suffering will soon endanger all of us, not just those afflicted. Those jerks will then join us and Al Capone in fighting this condition. Third, each and every one of us can be and should be a white blood cell in this immune system. Suicidal mass murderers can be despicable, yes, but they're also terribly broken and sad people, and those of us who aren't need to do what we can to make sure nobody goes unloved.
Next, we need to make fighting these dangers core to the discipline of synthetic biology. There are companies out there that at least claim they let their engineers spend 20 percent of their time doing whatever they want. What if those who hire bioengineers and become them give 20 percent of their time to building defenses for the common good? Not a bad idea, right?
Then, finally: this won't be any fun. But we need to let our minds go to some very, very dark places, and thank you for letting me take you there this evening. We survived the Cold War because every one of us understood and respected the danger, in part, because we had spent decades telling ourselves terrifying ghost stories with names like "Dr. Strangelove" and "War Games." This is no time to remain calm. This is one of those rare times when it's incredibly productive to freak the hell out —
to come up with some ghost stories and use our fear as fuel to fight this danger.
Because, all these terrible scenarios I've painted — they are not destiny. They're optional. The danger is still kind of distant. And that means it will only befall us if we allow it to.
Thank you very much for listening.