As has already been made plain by the advances of the XX century, individuals are gaining a greater ability to do greater damage over a larger area. And a few months ago this trend took a dangerous step forward.
In military terms this known as firepower and range, basically measurements of the amount of damage done to something and amount of territory this damage can be spread over. At one end we have an enraged person with a kitchen knife and towards the other end we have the two technicians in a missile silo who turn two keys to destroy a city halfway around the world.
Only a year or so ago people were still debating whether or not the United States should destroy it’s last stock of smallpox virus, now that military tensions with the Russians have evaporated. Some people referred to biological weapons as the poor man’s nuke and pointed out that there were many developing countries that were pursing research in this area and the United States should not destroy it’s stockpiles of biological weapons, just in case.
Now that scientists have built the polio virus from scratch, it has been demonstrated that even if we did destroy the last smallpox virus on earth, someone would have been able to recreate it from the gene sequences. The gene sequence of polio has been public knowledge, easily found on the Web, for many years now and the genie is already out of the bottle.
This is a scary and depressing news item for me because I know where this trend is ultimately headed. There are a lot of smart, if not wise, people in the world with an axe to grind and science is giving them better and more subtle tools to impose their views on the world by force. It will be possible in the future for one pissed off, anti-social geek, who thinks they know what’s best for the world, to build a nanoweapon in their basement that will reduce the biosphere to useless dust in the space of a few days–something far worse and more subtle than nuclear weapons. Arguments over gun regulation are a microcosmic example of this fundamental problem posed by advancing technology.