For some people, obsessing about The Coming Financial Crisis might actually be therapeutic because it’s both understandable and easily survivable (just buy silver!). So time spent researching the subject on Zero Hedge or pricing Silver Eagles online could actually be a useful distraction from the other, potentially much scarier stuff that’s going on out there.
Last week, for instance, Wired Magazine noted two developments that until, well, last week, were safely in the realm of science fiction. First, there’s a new gene manipulation technology that can apparently insert a time bomb into entire species – including us:
TO GET TO work in the morning, Omar Akbari has to pass through a minimum of six sealed doors, including an air-locked vestibule. The UC Riverside entomologist studies the world’s deadliest creature: the Aedes aegypti mosquito, whose bite transmits diseases that kill millions each year. But that’s not the reason for all the extra security. Akbari isn’t just studying mosquitoes—he’s re-engineering them with self-destruct switches. And that’s not something you want accidentally escaping into the world.
The technology Akbari is designing is something called a gene drive. Think of it as a way to supercharge evolution, forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population in just a few generations. Scientists see it as a powerful tool that could finally vanquish diseases like malaria, dengue, and Zika. But US defense agencies see something else: a national security issue.
Last year, former director of national intelligence James Clapper added gene editing to a list of threats posed by “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.” In July, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded $65 million in four-year contracts to seven teams of scientists, including Akbari, to study gene-editing technologies. The commitment officially made Darpa the world’s largest government funder of gene drive research. Most of that money is going toward designing safer systems and developing tools to counter rogue gene drives that might get into the environment either by accident, or with malicious intent.
That danger may be more real than scientists first thought. Four years ago, when Harvard biologist Kevin Esvelt first suggested the idea of building gene drives with the newly discovered Crispr gene editing system, he was thinking about extinction. Specifically, preventing endangered wildlife from disappearing by spreading a fertility-reducing gene through the invasive animals competing with them for resources. Conservation biologists took the idea and ran with it; they’re now considering gene drives to save native birds in Hawaii, New Zealand, and the Farallones. But now, Esvelt is saying they should slow down.
That’s based on the results of a new mathematical model he and his colleagues published on Thursday on the bioRxiv preprint server. Taking into account things like how often Crispr screws up and the likelihood of protective mutations arising, their work shows how gene drives could be ruthlessly aggressive. Just a few engineered organisms could irrevocably alter an ecosystem. While Esvelt doesn’t view the technology as inherently threatening, he is now preaching that it deserves a bold new caution in how it’s applied.
Second, there’s a robot that can do back flips. That sounds more cute than scary, but watch the video and see if you don’t get a sense that 1) it looks eerily like a human gymnast in a robot suit and 2) besides being really agile it’s probably way stronger, pound-for-pound, than any human. Match this kind of strength and dexterity with a controlling artificial intelligence (like, for instance, what is now being developed for self-driving cars) and you’ve got something that’s far out of a human soldier’s league.
Since the same AI that controls tomorrow’s bad-ass acrobat robots will probably, one way or another, have access to genetic engineering labs capable of making the previously-mentioned kill switch, we’d just better hope it’s a nice AI.