Martin Rees: Cyber attacks are becoming very, very serious, and they’re an example of how just one person can produce a really major disruption by disrupting electric power grids and things like that. This is a new kind of warfare if nations engage in it, but even an individual could cause pretty serious damage.
And similarly with biothreats — the new techniques, for instance, to make the influenza virus more virulent and more transmissible. These have been developed in a few years — a few years ago — and in 2014, the American federal government stopped funding research into these because it was thought to be dangerous knowledge and the risk of the virus escaping, et cetera. So that’s an example where there’s a new technique. And of course, we’ve got the wonderful new gene-editing technique, CRISPR/Cas9, which has huge benefits but also could have unintended consequences if so-called “gene drive” is used to make species extinct, and that has runaway consequences. So there’s a big risk with these things.
Now, quite rightly, there are lots of discussions within scientific academies and elsewhere about how to regulate these new technologies — particularly bio — modeled on a famous conference in Asilomar 40 years ago, in the early days of recombinant DNA, when the researchers agreed to a moratorium and to follow certain guidelines. And in that spirit, there have been, in the last two or three years, similar gatherings of academicians and experts. But things are different this time. They’re different because far more nations are involved. It’s far more widespread. And also, there’s much stronger commercial pressure, which there wasn’t 40 years ago; there was no biotech industry.
And for that reason, I think whatever guidelines we have — and feel should be adopted on prudential or ethical grounds — enforcing them is going to be very hard. I would say it’s going to be as hopeless to enforce them globally as it is to enforce the drug laws or the tax laws. We’ve had precious little success in enforcing either of those. And this I find very scary.
The point is that the equipment that is needed is very modest. Cyber attacks, you just need access to the Internet, and the techniques needed for some of these gene modification techniques are available in university labs and industry, et cetera. It’s not like nuclear, where you can’t build a nuclear weapon in your garage, but it’s going to be conspicuous, and therefore, it’s feasible to have inspection and monitoring of nuclear developments. We can’t do that in these cases, and so my worry is whatever can be done in the bio and cyber area will be done somewhere by someone, and I don’t know what we can do to eliminate that risk.
We can certainly try and reduce it, and I think we should focus very hard on ways to reduce it, to have surveillance, et cetera. Although, there again, there’s going to be tension between security, freedom, and privacy if we want to try and guard against individual lone wolves, as it were, misusing this technology. But I think it’s something we do need to worry about, and that’s — even on time scales of ten or twenty years — what worries me most.