[C]onsider that since the beginning of this century, rapidly accelerating technology has shown a distinct tendency to turn the impossible into the everyday in no time at all. Last year, IBM’s Watson, an artificial intelligence, understood natural language well enough to whip the human champion Ken Jennings on Jeopardy. As we write this, soldiers with bionic limbs are returning to active duty, and autonomous cars are driving down our streets. Yet most of these advances are small in comparison with the great leap forward currently under way in the biosciences—a leap with consequences we’ve only begun to imagine.
Personalized bioweapons are a subtler and less catastrophic threat than accidental plagues or WMDs. Yet they will likely be unleashed much more readily.
More to the point, consider that the DNA of world leaders is already a subject of intrigue. According to Ronald Kessler, the author of the 2009 book In the President’s Secret Service, Navy stewards gather bedsheets, drinking glasses, and other objects the president has touched—they are later sanitized or destroyed—in an effort to keep would‑be malefactors from obtaining his genetic material. (The Secret Service would neither confirm nor deny this practice, nor would it comment on any other aspect of this article.) And according to a 2010 release of secret cables by WikiLeaks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directed our embassies to surreptitiously collect DNA samples from foreign heads of state and senior United Nations officials. Clearly, the U.S. sees strategic advantage in knowing the specific biology of world leaders; it would be surprising if other nations didn’t feel the same.
While no use of an advanced, genetically targeted bio-weapon has been reported, the authors of this piece—including an expert in genetics and microbiology (Andrew Hessel) and one in global security and law enforcement (Marc Goodman)—are convinced we are drawing close to this possibility. Most of the enabling technologies are in place, already serving the needs of academic R&D groups and commercial biotech organizations. And these technologies are becoming exponentially more powerful, particularly those that allow for the easy manipulation of DNA.
The evolution of cancer treatment provides one window into what’s happening. Most cancer drugs kill cells. Today’s chemotherapies are offshoots of chemical-warfare agents: we’ve turned weapons into cancer medicines, albeit crude ones—and as with carpet bombing, collateral damage is a given. But now, thanks to advances in genetics, we know that each cancer is unique, and research is shifting to the development of personalized medicines—designer therapies that can exterminate specific cancerous cells in a specific way, in a specific person; therapies focused like lasers.
To be sure, around the turn of the millennium, significant fanfare surrounded personalized medicine, especially in the field of genetics. A lot of that is now gone. The prevailing wisdom is that the tech has not lived up to the talk, but this isn’t surprising. Gartner, an information-technology research-and-advisory firm, has coined the term hype cycle to describe exactly this sort of phenomenon: a new technology is introduced with enthusiasm, only to be followed by an emotional low when it fails to immediately deliver on its promise. But Gartner also discovered that the cycle doesn’t typically end in what the firm calls “the trough of disillusionment.” Rising from those ashes is a “slope of enlightenment”—meaning that when viewed from a longer-term historical perspective, the majority of these much-hyped groundbreaking developments do, eventually, break plenty of new ground.
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