Defending Against Replicating Weapons

Insanely Destructive Devices: Trying to defend against self-replicating weapons of mass destruction, by Foresight advisor Lawrence Lessig, about a class he's teaching with Steve Jurvetson, Senior Associate and tutorial/Gathering speaker at our May meeting.

Marking the 4th anniversary of Bill Joy's Wired article "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," Lessig writes about a course he and Steve Jurvetson put together on the challenges raised by Joy in his article. Using the example of engineered mousepox viruses that are 100% lethal and even 60% lethal to vaccinated mice, they asked their students "how a society should protect itself from innovations that lead to pox viruses with 100-percent kill rates." Initial student responses favored government regulation, decreased freedoms, and bulky bio-isolation suits.

"Then one student suggested a very different approach. If we can't defend against an attack, perhaps the rational response is to reduce the incentives to attack. Rather than designing space suits, maybe we should focus on ways to eliminate the reasons to annihilate us. Rather than stirring up a hornet's nest and then hiding behind a bush, maybe the solution is to avoid the causes of rage. Crazies, of course, can't be reasoned with. But we can reduce the incentives to become a crazy. We could reduce the reasonableness – from a certain perspective – for finding ways to destroy us.

"The point produced a depressing recognition. There's a logic to P2P threats that we as a society don't yet get. Like the record companies against the Internet, our first response is war. But like the record companies, that response will be either futile or self-destructive. If you can't control the supply of IDDs, then the right response is to reduce the demand for IDDs. Yet as everyone in the class understood, in the four years since Joy wrote his Wired piece, we've done precisely the opposite. Our present course of unilateral cowboyism will continue to produce generations of angry souls seeking revenge on us.

"We've not yet fully understood Joy. In the future there most certainly will be IDDs. Abolishing freedom, issuing space suits, and launching wars only increases the danger that they will be used. We had better learn that soon."

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