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  • 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.

  • (Laughter)

  • 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 --

  • (Laughter)

  • 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 --

  • (Applause)

  • 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?

  • (Applause)

  • So we need a more inclusive