Smallpox has killed a billion humans. That’s more deaths than in all modern wars combined. Yet despite its virulence, smallpox typically kills only 30 percent of the population it infects. Naturally evolving pathogens keep enough victims around to kill again.
Engineered pathogens can be different – as recent work in Australia has terrifyingly demonstrated. By inserting a mail-order gene into mousepox, scientists increased the death rate in mice to 100 percent. Even after vaccination, the rate was 60 percent.
We don’t know whether the mail-order gene would have the same effect with smallpox. But the very idea is an example of the fear that led Bill Joy to write his frightening piece “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” published four years ago this month in Wired.
Joy worried that key technologies of the future – in particular, genetic engineering, nanotech, and robotics (or GNR) because they are self-replicating and increasingly easier to craft – would be radically more dangerous than technologies of the past. It is impossibly hard to build an atomic bomb; when you build one, you’ve built just one. But the equivalent evil implanted in a malevolent virus will become easier to build, and if built, could become self-replicating. This is P2P (peer-to-peer) meets WMD (weapons of mass destruction), producing IDDs (insanely destructive devices).