January 04, 2004

Biohacking one's way out

Robert Carlson, The Pace and Proliferation of Biological Technologies, Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science, Volume 1, Number 3, 2003

A very readable paper arguing that biotechnology skills and equipment are proliferating not just internationally but also percolating into society. As technology advances, older but still powerful devices are sold off (like mainframe computers once were), and new equipment becomes smaller and more capable. Several trends not unlike Moore's law appear to go on in biotechnology. This makes many of the current calls for tighter regulation and even relinquishment unrealistic - while at the same time the risk for misuse or unexpected uses and users (which might frighten lawmakers even more by being out-of-context problems). Carlson argues that bans would only promote even riskier black markets and suggests that an open and expansive research community might be the best way to deal with crises.

This flexible approach sounds very similar to the one suggested by Arthur Kantrowitz for nanotechnology development in The Weapon of Openness (Foresight Background No. 4, Rev. 0).

The idea that central control can prevent proliferation and misuse of dangerous technology is popular (it is simple to understand, appeals to planners and lawmakers, impresses citizens with the mystique of action and so on). But it may only work when the central control has ability to control some key element (like enriched radioactives for nuclear weapons), the field is relatively well defined with few players and the control does not entail the huge costs of broad surveillance, administration or the risks of rampant organisation growth that is so common. Centralized top-down organisations also work best when they can solve well-defined problems, such as dealing with a particular adversary.

It is often unclear what the goal of control should be. There is no consensus on what would constitute misuse of biotechnology. Some consider the whole field a misuse of technology, others have differing ethical opinions on applications or goals - and these opinions coexist both within societies and between them. When biohacking becomes more feasible the biohackers will also have very different goals.

The threat from biohacking is manifold and distributed. The real risks are not likely escaped modified E coli making cocaine in the gut, bioweapons or glow-in-the-dark aquarium fishes but something completely unexpected not in anybody's contingency plan. The best way of dealing with such threats is also a distributed and manifold approach - a diversity of researchers sharing information, alerting each other about threats and discoveries, trying different approaches and competing at being the first to find solutions. A centralized control regime would prevent much of this web of open and robust protection, making the remaining tatters of the web of researchers work within narrowly defined national or organisational compartments.

Posted by Anders at January 4, 2004 02:17 AM

Apropos biohacking, not everybody is deathly afraid of going after the genome with an disassembler, if a hacked banana is improving your harvest an order of a magnitude, resistans will crumble if it ever existed.
See this article as an example

Posted by: henrik ohrstrom at January 6, 2004 05:28 PM

Practical benefits will win out when there is no conflict with worldviews. Most developing countries do not have any particular problem with biotech - except a lot of pressuring from western groups who have a deep worldview problem with biotech. Europe does not need GMO desperately or to get ahead in international competition, so we can afford to be picky about things. And an organisation based around certain values will of course profit when it can promote these values (making people at home pay it) regardless of the long term effects abroad. So the net result is that the philosophical objections of the west, based in the green-romantic view of nature, are exported or used as a trade weapon, limiting the use elsewhere.

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