FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, October 21, 2005

Kurzweil and Joy on the 1918 Flu Genome

The other day, noted futurists Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy published an article in the New York Times sharply criticizing the decision by the US Department of Health and Human Services to publish the full genome of the 1918 influenza virus:

This is extremely foolish. The genome is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. No responsible scientist would advocate publishing precise designs for an atomic bomb, and ... revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous.

The article has generated controversy, as many have come to the defense of HHS and claimed that open access to such information is less of a security threat than a crucial tool for building defenses against viruses. Writes Jamais Casico in WorldChanging:

Open access to this kind of information is of much greater use to people trying to defend us all from pandemics than to those few who might try to attack us. As with software source code, openness to a multitude of eyes provides far more security than does secrecy. A handful of researchers, operating under classified conditions, will not be able to learn as much about the functioning of a virus than could thousands or even millions of researchers around the world.

Kurzweil and Joy call for efforts to regulate the way that this kind of information is published. Stopping just short of an argument for censorship, they advocate "agreements by scientific organizations to limit such publications and an international dialogue on the best approach to preventing recipes for weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands." Such efforts, while understandable and well-intentioned, are unworkable in today's environment for at least two reasons. One is the viral (sorry) nature of today's information environment; anyone can post anything on a blog, where it will be circulated and referenced within hours. The second is money; like it or not, if there's a financial incentive to publish this type of information, it will happen.

The controversy over the release of the genome highlights the pros and cons of our New Media paradigm. In the old days, Somebody in Power could prevent the networks and the press from hearing about something (or even tell them not to mention it), and that would be the end of that. But that was then. We haven't yet learned to balance freedom of information with its responsible use... and we may not for a very long time. In the meantime, we have to live with the fact that information is like a teenager who leaves home for the first time. On the surface he's responsible enough to make it on his own... but even the most responsible kid can get into a world of trouble.

Almost a footnote in Kurzweil and Joy's piece is a call to arms, of sorts, for making antiviral healthcare a national priority:

We ... need a new Manhattan Project to develop specific defenses against new biological viral threats, natural or human made. There are promising new technologies, like RNA interference, that could be harnessed. We need to put more stones on the defensive side of the scale.

Perhaps the threat of a pandemic will be the proverbial "last straw" that finally makes the US government get serious about national healthcare. The Bush Administration is trying to be proactive about a possible avian flu epidemic; if President Bush were to use flu prevention as the cornerstone for redefining how this country delivers healthcare, it could stand to be his greatest achievement.