Volume 4, Issue 1 
May 2009

Cryonic Enabling Technology and the Bioweapons Risk

Douglas Mulhall

This article was adapted from a lecture given by Douglas Mulhall during the 4th Annual Workshop on Geoethical Nanotechnology on July 20, 2008 at the Terasem Island Amphitheatre in the virtual meeting environment Second Life.

Douglas Mulhall, Nanotechnology Researcher and Journalist, discusses the public and political urgency to develop an overall strategy for dealing with the potential (good vs. evil), dual use of nanotechnology.

What Happened to the Committee on Advances in Technology and the Prevention of the Application to Next Generation Bioterrorism and Biowarfare Threats?

This presentation emanates from Terasem Movement, Inc.’s First Annual Geoethical Nanotechnology Workshop [1] in 2005, where Dr. Martine Rothblatt [2] made a presentation that very powerfully stayed with me until now, and which is explained later in this article.

The topic is: “Cryonic Enabling Technology and the Bioweapons Risks.” However, this started as a question I posed in a 2008 email to Dr. Rothblatt, relating to her 2005 lecture. The question was: what happened to the “Committee on Advances in Technology and the Prevention of the Application to Next Generation Bioterrorism and Biowarfare Threats”? This refers to a report conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, which serves as the focus of this presentation.

Any of the powerful technologies being invented today have the possibility for the ‘Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ application. That is, they can be used for benefit or harm.

There is nothing new about the dual-use debate surrounding cryonic enabling technologies and many nanotechnologies inherent to cryonics. Anyone who has followed the field for a while will recall that Eric Drexler [3], who has written formative books on nanotechnology, pointed this out. As well, Bill Joy [4] and his famous article for Wired magazine, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," along with Ray Kurzweil's [5] various responses and their debates, added considerably to the field.

The dilemma this debate pointed out is that conventional policing measures do not work. The reason they do not work is because unlike many other technologies that preceded them, nanotechnologies can be developed and controlled by very small numbers of people surreptitiously and are very, very hard to detect.

When you compare that to the control of the most powerful weapons on Earth today which are, of course, nuclear weapons, there are some fundamental differences. The main one being that it takes a huge infrastructure to develop nuclear weapons. Even if you acquire nuclear weapons, they can be tracked by virtue of the fact they give off certain radioactive signals.

The second aspect to this is the regime designed to control these types of weapons, such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty [6]. These regimes are what I call a slow-moving failure. That slow-moving failure is signified by the gradual proliferation of the weapons, although you do not see a catastrophic failure yet.

Even if someone were to detonate one of these weapons somewhere sometime, it would not necessarily promote a catastrophe in the true sense of the word. For example, we saw many years ago that hundreds of open-air tests took place but did not have short-term catastrophic effects on society.

Because such regimes are failing slowly, we have allowed ourselves to be lulled into a sense of complacency. Therefore, the problem we face with putting a workable regime into place for controlling the downside of nanotechnology is that there is no urgency right now. There is no public sense of urgency. There is no political sense of urgency.

We already have a stealthy tsunami washing over us at the very early stages of nanotechnology. The broad definition I use here for nanotech involves the manipulation of particles at the nanometer scale, but the tsunami I refer to is in the field of consumer products.

In 2001, the Institute of Medicine held the first seminar on the benefits and risks of nanotechnology. I was invited to speak at that workshop. One of the things that was pointed out even then, in the early studies, was the potentially serious side effects of certain types of nanoparticles.

The effects of nanoparticles have been known for some time, before nanotechnology was invented as a science. For example, volcanoes and coal-fired plants all spew out nanoparticles that have negative health effects, so nanoparticles are nothing new. However, manufactured nanoparticles, in particular long string nanotubes, have recently been studied. It has been found, actually in the past few months, that some behave very similarly to asbestos and can generate a form of mesothelioma [7].

The unfortunate side of this is that literally hundreds of nanoparticle products in the environment today already exist in everything from shirts, to tires, car parts and certain materials; they are already out there. There are trillions of these nanoparticles wandering around. Not all of them are long nanotubes, but certainly some of them are. What we have seen is an abject failure of the risk management regime at the very first steps of nanotechnology to control this situation.

We see some potential widespread negative health effects as a result of that. Despite this (and I've had some firsthand experience with this), leaders in industries who are involved with these particles are pooh-poohing the risks. It sounds like the asbestos industry forty-five years ago saying that early reports of medical impacts were overblown. This holds negative implications for the potential to have an effective management regime for much more powerful technologies.

Now of course a lot of people recognize this. The National Academy of Sciences recognized this, and a report by one of its committees constitutes the subject of this presentation: “Committee on Advances in Technology and the Prevention of their Application to Next Generation Biowarfare Agents.” [8]

In 2006 this committee, which was composed of very high-ranking scientists from universities and corporations around the world, issued their report and you can read it online: Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences. [9]

Shortly after it issued the report, the committee disbanded and said, "Good luck," to the rest of us although many of those committee members do continue to participate in other groups that are discussing this.

I'm going to go through the recommendations very quickly because you can see these on the report’s website. Overall, the recommendation was that a wide range of actions is required to successfully manage the biological threats that face society. In plain English, it means we need a whole lot of time, money and effort to get these things done. Of course, right now, virtually no time, money and effort is being spent on it.


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[1] Terasem’s First Annual Geoethical Nanotechnology Workshop - http://terasemcentral.org/GN/2005... 
September 26, 2008 9:40AM EST

[2] Martine Rothblatt, J.D., Ph.D. - started the satellite vehicle tracking and satellite radio industries and is the Chairman of United Therapeutics, a biotechnology company headquartered in Silver Springs, Maryland. Dr. Rothblatt is also the President of Terasem Movement, Inc. and has written several books, including The Apartheid of Sex, Two Stars for Peace, Unzipped Genes, and Your Life or Mine.
http://terasemcentral.org/about.html  September 26, 2008 9:42AM EST

[3] K. Eric Drexler - a researcher and author whose work focuses on advanced nanotechnologies and directions for current research. His 1981 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences established fundamental principles of molecular design, protein engineering, and productive nanosystems. Drexler’s research in this field has been the basis for numerous journal articles and for books including Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (written for a general audience) and Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation (a quantitative, physics-based analysis).
http://www.e-drexler.com/p/idx04/00/0404drexlerBioCV.html  September 26, 2008 9:45AM EST

[4] Bill Joy - Bill Joy is Chief Scientist and Corporate Executive Officer of Sun Microsystems. In 1997, Joy was appointed by President Clinton as Co-Chairman of the Presidential Information Technology Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee is providing guidance and advice on all areas of high-performance computing, communications and information technologies to accelerate development and adoption of information technologies that will be vital for American prosperity in the twenty-first century.
http://www.counterbalance.net/bio/joy-body.html  October 1, 2008 11:43AM EST

Joy, Bill. "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." Wired Apr. 2000.
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html  September 26, 2008 10:09AM EST

[5] Ray Kurzweil - described as “the restless genius” by the Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and PBS included Ray as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries.
http://www.kurzweiltech.com/rayspeakerbio.html  October 1, 2008 11:46AM EST

[6] Non-Proliferation Treaty - The NPT is a landmark international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament. The Treaty represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon States. Opened for signature in 1968, the Treaty entered into force in 1970. A total of 187 parties have joined the Treaty, including the five nuclear-weapon States. More countries have ratified the NPT than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement,. 
http://www.un.org/Depts/dda/WMD/treaty/  September 26, 2008 10:20AM EST

[7] Mesothelioma – A rare neoplasm derived from the lining cells of the pleura and peritoneum and growing as a thick sheet composed of spindle cells or fibrous tissue covering the viscera.
The American Heritage STEDMAN’S Medical Dictionary. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004: 504.

[8] Advances in Technology and the Prevention of their Application to Next Generation Biowarfare Agents - This study (conducted jointly with the National Research Council) examined trends and objectives of research in public health, life sciences, and biomedical science that contain applications relevant to developments in biological weapons 5 to 15 years into the future and ways to anticipate, identify and mitigate these dangers. This committee explored issues surrounding the "dual use" applications of biotechnology and genetic engineering data.  This project did not address agricultural biotechnology or bioterrorism threats to agricultural plants and animals since this topic has already been addressed by the NRC report entitled Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism. http://www.iom.edu/CMS/3783/17082.aspx  September 26, 2008 10:48AM EST

[9] Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences - Knowledge, materials, and technologies with applications to the life sciences enterprise are advancing with tremendous speed, making it possible to identify and manipulate features of living systems in ways never before possible. On a daily basis and in laboratories around the world, biomedical researchers are using sophisticated technologies to manipulate microorganisms in an effort to understand how microbes cause disease and to develop better preventative and therapeutic measures against these diseases. For more go to:
http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11567&page=1  September 26, 2008 10:52AM EST



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