FP | A main element of the biological revolution will be its impact on security in the broadest sense of the term, as well as on the more specific realm of military activity. Both of these are part of the work being done by various laboratories around the globe, including here in the United States at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, where I serve as a senior fellow.
Some of the most promising advances made at JHU APL and elsewhere involve man-machine interfaces, with particular emphasis on brain-machine connections that would allow the use of disconnected limbs; more rapid disease identification in response to both natural and man-made epidemics; artificial intelligence, which offers the greatest near-term potential for both positive benefit and military application (i.e., autonomous attack drones); human performance enhancement, including significant reduction in sleep needs, increases in mental acuity, and improvements in exoskeleton and skin “armor”; and efficient genome editing using CRISPR-Cas, a technology that has become widely available to ever smaller laboratory settings, including individuals working out of their homes.
The most important question is how to appropriately pursue such research while remaining within the legal, ethical, moral, and policy boundaries that our society might one day like to set, though are still largely unformed. Scientists are like soldiers on patrol in unmarked terrain, one that is occasionally illuminated by a flash of lightning, revealing steeper and more dangerous ground ahead. The United States needs to continue its research efforts, but, equally important, it needs to develop a coherent and cohesive biological strategy to guide those efforts.
But national biological research efforts will also have international implications, so over time there will need to be international diplomacy to set norms of behavior for the use of these technologies. The diplomacy that went into developing the Law of the Sea, and is under consideration in the cyberworld, could serve as a useful model.
A major challenge for such diplomacy is that individual nations, transnational organizations, or even individuals will soon have access — if they don’t already — to biological tools that permit manipulation of living organisms. The rise of low-cost synthetic biology technologies, the falling cost of DNA sequencing, and the diffusion of knowledge through the internet create the conditions for a breakout biological event not dissimilar to the Spanish influenza of roughly a century ago. In that plague, by some estimates, nearly 40 percent of the world’s population was infected, with a 10 to 20 percent mortality rate. Extrapolated to our current global population, that would equate to more than 400 million dead.