A memorial to Mark Buller, PhD, and our response to the propaganda film "Demon in the Freezer".

Earlier this year my friend and colleague Mark Buller passed away. Mark was a noted virologist and a professor at Saint Louis University. He was struck by a car while riding his bicycle home from the lab, and died from his injuries. Here is Mark's obituary as published by the university.

In 2014 and 2015, Mark and I served as advisors to a WHO scientific working group on synthetic biology and the variola virus (the causative agent of smallpox). In 2016, we wrote the following, previously un-published, response to an "Op-Doc" that appeared in the New York Times. In a forthcoming post I will have more to say about both my experience with the WHO and my thoughts on the recent publication of a synthetic horsepox genome. For now, here is the last version (circa May, 2016) of the response Mark I and wrote to the Op-Doc, published here as my own memorial to Professor Buller.


Variola virus is still needed for the development of smallpox medical countermeasures

On May 17, 2016 Errol Morris presented a short movie entitled “Demon in the Freezer” [note: quite different from the book of the same name by Richard Preston] in the Op-Docs section of the on-line New York Times. The piece purported to present both sides of the long-standing argument over what to do with the remaining laboratory stocks of variola virus, the causative agent of smallpox, which no longer circulates in the human population.

Since 1999, the World Health Organization has on numerous occasions postponed the final destruction of the two variola virus research stocks in Russia and the US in order to support public health related research, including the development of smallpox molecular diagnostics, antivirals, and vaccines.  

“Demon in the Freezer” clearly advocates for destroying the virus. The Op-Doc impugns the motivation of scientists carrying out smallpox research by asking: “If given a free hand, what might they unleash?” The narrative even suggests that some in the US government would like to pursue a nefarious policy goal of “mutually assured destruction with germs”. This portion of the movie is interlaced with irrelevant, hyperbolic images of mushroom clouds. The reality is that in 1969 the US unilaterally renounced the production, storage or use biological weapons for any reason whatsoever, including in response to a biologic attack from another country. The same cannot be said for ISIS and Al-Qaeda. In 1975 the US ratified the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning chemical and biological agents in warfare and became party to the Biological Weapons Convention that emphatically prohibits the use of biological weapons in warfare.

“Demon in the Freezer” is constructed with undeniable flair, but in the end it is a benighted 21st century video incarnation of a middling 1930's political propaganda mural. It was painted with only black and white pigments, rather than a meaningful palette of colors, and using a brush so broad that it blurred any useful detail. Ultimately, and to its discredit, the piece sought to create fear and outrage based on unsubstantiated accusations.

Maintaining live smallpox virus is necessary for ongoing development and improvement of medical countermeasures. The first-generation US smallpox vaccine was produced in domesticated animals, while the second-generation smallpox vaccine was manufactured in sterile bioreactors; both have the potential to cause serious side effects in 10-20% of the population. The third generation smallpox vaccine has an improved safety profile, and causes minimal side effects. Fourth generation vaccine candidates, based on newer, lower cost, technology, will be even safer and some are in preclinical testing. There remains a need to develop rapid field diagnostics and an additional antiviral therapy for smallpox.

Continued vigilance is necessary because it is widely assumed that numerous undeclared stocks of variola virus exist around the world in clandestine laboratories. Moreover, unsecured variola virus stocks are encountered occasionally in strain collections left behind by long-retired researchers, as demonstrated in 2014 with the discovery of 1950s vintage variola virus in a cold room at the NIH. The certain existence of unofficial stocks makes destroying the official stocks an exercise in declaring “victory” merely for political purposes rather than a substantive step towards increasing security. Unfortunately, the threat does not end with undeclared or forgotten samples.

In 2015 a WHO Scientific Working Group on Synthetic Biology and Variola Virus and Smallpox determined that a “skilled laboratory technician or undergraduate student with experience of working with viruses” would be able to generate variola virus from the widely available genomic sequence in “as little as three months”. Importantly, this Working Group concluded that “there will always be the potential to recreate variola virus and therefore the risk of smallpox happening again can never be eradicated.” Thus, the goal of a variola virus-free future, however laudable, is unattainable. This is sobering guidance on a topic that requires sober consideration.

We welcome increased discussions of the risk of infectious disease and of public health preparedness. In the US these topics have too long languished among second (or third) tier national security conversations. The 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak and the current Congressional debate over funding to counter the Zika virus exemplifies the business-as-usual political approach of throwing half a bucket of water on the nearest burning bush while the surrounding countryside goes up in flames. Lethal infectious diseases are serious public health and global security issues and they deserve serious attention.

The variola virus has killed more humans numerically than any other single cause in history. This pathogen was produced by nature, and it would be the height of arrogance, and very foolish indeed, to assume nothing like it will ever again emerge from the bush to threaten human life and human civilization. Maintenance of variola virus stocks is needed for continued improvement of molecular diagnostics, antivirals, and vaccines. Under no circumstances should we unilaterally cripple those efforts in the face of the most deadly infectious disease ever to plague humans. This is an easy mistake to avoid.

Mark Buller, PhD, was a Professor of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, who passed away on February 24, 2017. Rob Carlson, PhD, is a Principal at the engineering and strategy firm Biodesic and a Managing Director of Bioeconomy Capital.

The authors served as scientific and technical advisors to the 2015 WHO Scientific Working Group on Synthetic Biology and Variola Virus.

Late Night, Unedited Musings on Synthesizing Secret Genomes

By now you have probably heard that a meeting took place this past week at Harvard to discuss large scale genome synthesis. The headline large genome to synthesize is, of course, that of humans. All 6 billion (duplex) bases, wrapped up in 23 pairs of chromosomes that display incredible architectural and functional complexity that we really don't understand very well just yet. So no one is going to be running off to the lab to crank out synthetic humans. That 6 billion bases, by the way, just for one genome, exceeds the total present global demand for synthetic DNA. This isn't happening tomorrow. In fact, synthesizing a human genome isn't going to happen for a long time.

But, if you believe the press coverage, nefarious scientists are planning pull a Frankenstein and "fabricate" a human genome in secret. Oh, shit! Burn some late night oil! Burn some books! Wait, better — burn some scientists! Not so much, actually. There are a several important points here. I'll take them in no particular order.

First, it's true, the meeting was held behind closed doors. It wasn't intended to be so, originally. The rationale given by the organizers for the change is that a manuscript on the topic is presently under review, and the editor of the journal considering the manuscript made it clear that it considers the entire topic under embargo until the paper is published. This put the organizers in a bit of a pickle. They decided the easiest way to comply with the editor's wishes (which were communicated to the authors well after the attendees had made travel plans) was to hold the meeting under rules even more strict than Chatham House until the paper is published. At that point, they plan to make a full record of the meeting available. It just isn't a big deal. If it sounds boring and stupid so far, it is. The word "secret" was only introduced into the conversation by a notable critic who, as best I can tell, perhaps misconstrued the language around the editor's requirement to respect the embargo. A requirement that is also boring and stupid. But, still, we are now stuck with "secret", and all the press and bloggers who weren't there are seeing Watergate headlines and fame. Still boring and stupid.

Next, It has been reported that there were no press at the meeting. However, I understand that there were several reporters present. It has also been suggested that the press present were muzzled. This is a ridiculous claim if you know anything about reporters. They've simply been asked to respect the embargo, which so far they are doing, just like they do with every other embargo. (Note to self, and to readers: do not piss off reporters. Do not accuse them of being simpletons or shills. Avoid this at all costs. All reporters are brilliant and write like Hemingway and/or Shakespeare and/or Oliver Morton / Helen Branswell / Philip Ball / Carl Zimmer / Erica Check-Hayden. Especially that one over there. You know who I mean. Just sayin'.)

How do I know all this? You can take a guess, but my response is also covered by the embargo.

Moving on: I was invited to the meeting in question, but could not attend. I've checked the various associated correspondence, and there's nothing about keeping it "secret". In fact, the whole frickin' point of coupling the meeting to a serious, peer-reviewed paper on the topic was to open up the conversation with the public as broadly as possible. (How do you miss that unsubtle point, except by trying?) The paper was supposed to come out before, or, at the latest, at the same time as the meeting. Or, um, maybe just a little bit after? But, whoops. Surprise! Academic publishing can be slow and/or manipulated/politicized. Not that this happened here. Anyway, get over it. (Also: Editors! And, reviewers! And, how many times will I say "this is the last time!")

(Psst: an aside. Science should be open. Biology, in particular, should be done in the public view and should be discussed in the open. I've said and written this in public on many occasions. I won't bore you with the references. [Hint: right here.] But that doesn't mean that every conversation you have should be subject to review by the peanut gallery right now. Think of it like a marriage/domestic partnership. You are part of society; you have a role and a responsibility, especially if you have children. But that doesn't mean you publicize your pillow talk. That would be deeply foolish and would inevitably prevent you from having honest conversations with your spouse. You need privacy to work on your thinking and relationships. Science: same thing. Critics: fuck off back to that sewery rag in — wait, what was I saying about not pissing off reporters?)

Is this really a controversy? Or is it merely a controversy because somebody said it is? Plenty of people are weighing in who weren't there or, undoubtedly worse from their perspective, weren't invited and didn't know it was happening. So I wonder if this is more about drawing attention to those doing the shouting. That is probably unfair, this being an academic discussion, full of academics.

Secondly (am I just on secondly?), the supposed ethical issues. Despite what you may read, there is no rush. No human genome, nor any human chromosome, will be synthesized for some time to come. Make no mistake about how hard a technical challenge this is. While we have some success in hand at synthesizing yeast chromosomes, and while that project certainly serves as some sort of model for other genomes, the chromatin in multicellular organisms has proven more challenging to understand or build. Consequently, any near-term progress made in synthesizing human chromosomes is going to teach us a great deal about biology, about disease, and about what makes humans different from other animals. It is still going to take a long time. There isn't any real pressing ethical issue to be had here, yet. Building the ubermench comes later. You can be sure, however, that any federally funded project to build the ubermench will come with a ~2% set aside to pay for plenty of bioethics studies. And that's a good thing. It will happen.

There is, however, an ethical concern here that needs discussing. I care very deeply about getting this right, and about not screwing up the future of biology. As someone who has done multiple tours on bioethics projects in the U.S. and Europe, served as a scientific advisor to various other bioethics projects, and testified before the Presidential Commission on Bioethical Concerns (whew!), I find that many of these conversations are more about the ethicists than the bio. Sure, we need to have public conversations about how we use biology as a technology. It is a very powerful technology. I wrote a book about that. If only we had such involved and thorough ethical conversations about other powerful technologies. Then we would have more conversations about stuff. We would converse and say things, all democratic-like, and it would feel good. And there would be stuff, always more stuff to discuss. We would say the same things about that new stuff. That would be awesome, that stuff, those words. <dreamy sigh> You can quote me on that. <another dreamy sigh>

But on to the technical issues. As I wrote last month, I estimate that the global demand for synthetic DNA (sDNA) to be 4.8 billion bases worth of short oligos and ~1 billion worth of longer double-stranded (dsDNA), for not quite 6 Gigabases total. That, obviously, is the equivalent of a single human duplex genome. Most of that demand is from commercial projects that must return value within a few quarters, which biotech is now doing at eye-popping rates. Any synthetic human genome project is going to take many years, if not decades, and any commercial return is way, way off in the future. Even if the annual growth in commercial use of sDNA were 20% — which is isn't — this tells you, dear reader, that the commercial biotech use of synthetic DNA is never, ever, going to provide sufficient demand to scale up production to build many synthetic human genomes. Or possibly even a single human genome. The government might step in to provide a market to drive technology, just as it did for the human genome sequencing project, but my judgement is that the scale mismatch is so large as to be insurmountable. Even while sDNA is already a commodity, it has far more value in reprogramming crops and microbes with relatively small tweaks than it has in building synthetic human genomes. So if this story were only about existing use of biology as technology, you could go back to sleep.

But there is a use of DNA that might change this story, which is why we should be paying attention, even at this late hour on a Friday night.

DNA is, by far, the most sophisticated and densest information storage medium humans have ever come across. DNA can be used to store orders of magnitude more bits per gram than anything else humans have come up with. Moreover, the internet is expanding so rapidly that our need to archive data will soon outstrip existing technologies. If we continue down our current path, in coming decades we would need not only exponentially more magnetic tape, disk drives, or flash memory, but exponentially more factories to produce these storage media, and exponentially more warehouses to store them. Even if this is technically feasible it is economically implausible. But biology can provide a solution. DNA exceeds by many times even the theoretical capacity of magnetic tape or solid state storage.

A massive warehouse full of magnetic tapes might be replaced by an amount of DNA the size of a sugar cube. Moreover, while tape might last decades, and paper might last millennia, we have found intact DNA in animal carcasses that have spent three-quarters of a million years frozen in the Canadian tundra. Consequently, there is a push to combine our ability to read and write DNA with our accelerating need for more long-term information storage. Encoding and retrieval of text, photos, and video in DNA has already been demonstrated. (Yes, I am working on one of these projects, but I can't talk about it just yet. We're not even to the embargo stage.) 

Governments and corporations alike have recognized the opportunity. Both are funding research to support the scaling up of infrastructure to synthesize and sequence DNA at sufficient rates.

For a “DNA drive” to compete with an archival tape drive today, it needs to be able to write ~2Gbits/sec, which is about 2 Gbases/sec. That is the equivalent of ~20 synthetic human genomes/min, or ~10K sHumans/day, if I must coin a unit of DNA synthesis to capture the magnitude of the change. Obviously this is likely to be in the form of either short ssDNA, or possibly medium-length ss- or dsDNA if enzymatic synthesis becomes a factor. If this sDNA were to be used to assemble genomes, it would first have to be assembled into genes, and then into synthetic chromosomes, a non trivial task. While this would be hard, and would to take a great deal of effort and PhD theses, it certainly isn't science fiction.

But here, finally, is the interesting bit: the volume of sDNA necessary to make DNA information storage work, and the necessary price point, would make possible any number of synthetic genome projects. That, dear reader, is definitely something that needs careful consideration by publics. And here I do not mean "the public", the 'them' opposed to scientists and engineers in the know and in the do (and in the doo-doo, just now), but rather the Latiny, rootier sense of "the people". There is no them, here, just us, all together. This is important.

The scale of the demand for DNA storage, and the price at which it must operate, will completely alter the economics of reading and writing genetic information, in the process marginalizing the use by existing multibillion-dollar biotech markets while at the same time massively expanding capabilities to reprogram life. This sort of pull on biotechnology from non-traditional applications will only increase with time. That means whatever conversation we think we are having about the calm and ethical development biological technologies is about to be completely inundated and overwhelmed by the relentless pull of global capitalism, beyond borders, probably beyond any control. Note that all the hullabaloo so far about synthetic human genomes, and even about CRISPR editing of embryos, etc., has been written by Western commentators, in Western press. But not everybody lives in the West, and vast resources are pushing development of biotechnology outside of the of West. And that is worth an extended public conversation.

So, to sum up, have fun with all the talk of secret genome synthesis. That's boring. I am going off the grid for the rest of the weekend to pester litoral invertebrates with my daughter. You are on your own for a couple of days. Reporters, you are all awesome, make of the above what you will. Also: you are all awesome. When I get back to the lab on Monday I will get right on with fabricating the ubermench for fun and profit. But — shhh — that's a secret.

Biosecurity is Everyone's Business (Part 2)

(Here is Part 1.)

Part 2. From natural security to neural security

Humans are fragile. For most of history we have lived with the expectation that we will lose the use of organs, and some of us limbs, as we age or suffer injury. But that is now changing. Prostheses are becoming more lifelike and more useful, and replacement organs have been used to save lives and restore function. But how robust are the replacement parts? The imminent prospect of technological restoration of human organs and limbs lost to injury or disease is cause to think carefully about increasing both our biological capabilities and our technological fragilities.

Technology fails us for many reasons. A particular object or application may be poorly designed or poorly constructed. Constituent materials may be faulty, or maintenance may be shoddy. Failure can result from inherent security flaws, which can be exploited directly by those with sufficient technical knowledge and skill. Failure can also be driven by clever and conniving exploits of the overall system that focus on its weakest link, almost always the human user, by inducing them to make a mistake or divulge critical information. Our centuries of experience and documentation of such failures should inform our thinking about the security of emerging technologies, particularly as we begin to fuse biology with electronic systems. The growing scope of biotechnology will therefore require constant reassessment of what vulnerabilities we are introducing through that expansion. Examining the course of other technologies provides some insight into the future of biology.

We carry powerful computers in our pockets, use the internet to gather information and access our finances, and travel the world in aircraft that are often piloted and landed by computers. We are told we can trust this technology with our financial information, our identities and social networks, and, ultimately, our lives. At the same time, technology is constantly shown to be vulnerable and fragile at a non-trivial rate -- resulting in identity theft, financial loss, and sometimes personal injury and death. We embrace technology despite well-understood risks; automobiles, electricity, fossil fuels, automation, and bicycles all kill people every day in predictable numbers. Yet we continue to use technology, integrating it further into multiple arenas in our lives, because we decide that the benefits outweigh risks.

Healthcare is one arena in which risks are multiplying. The IT security community has for some years been aware of network vulnerabilities in medical devices such as pacemakers and implantable defibrillators. The ongoing integration of networked medical devices in health care settings, an integration that is constantly introducing both new capabilities and new vulnerabilities, is now the focus of extensive efforts to improve security. The impending introduction of networked, semi-autonomous prostheses raises obvious similar concerns. Wi-fi enabled pacemakers and implantable defibrillators are just the start, as soon we will see bionic arms, legs, and eyes with network connections that allow performance monitoring and tuning.

Eventually, prostheses will not simply restore "human normal" capabilities, they will also augment human performance. I learned recently that DARPA explicitly chose to limit the strength of its robotic arm, but that can't last: science fiction, super robotic strength is coming. What happens when hackers get ahold of this technology? How will people begin to modify themselves and their robotic appendages? And, of course, the flip side of having enhanced physical capabilities is having enhanced vulnerabilities. By definition, tuning can improve or degrade performance, and this raises an important security question: who holds the password for your shiny new arm? Did someone remember to overwrite the factory default password? Is the new password susceptible to a dictionary attack? The future brings even more concerns.  Control connections to a prosthesis are bi-directional and, as the technology improves, ever better neural interfaces will eventually jack these prostheses directly into the brain. "Tickling" a robotic limb could take on a whole new meaning, providing a means to connect various kinds of external signals to the brain in new ways.

Beyond limbs, we must also consider neural connections that serve to open entirely novel senses. It is not a great leap to envision a wide range of ensuing digital-to-neural input/output devices. These technologies are evolving at a rapid rate, and through them we are on the cusp of opening up human brains to connections with a wide range of electromechanical hardware capabilities and, indeed, all the information on the internet.

Just this week saw publication of a cochlear implant that delivers a gene therapy to auditory neurons, promoting the formation of electrical connections with the implant and thereby dramatically improving the hearing response of test animals. We are used to the idea of digital music files being converted by speakers into sound waves, which enter the brain through the ear. But the cochlear implant is basically an ethernet connection wired to your auditory nerve, which in principal means any signal can be piped into your brain. How long can it be before we see experiments with a cochlear (or other) implant that enables direct conversion of arbitrary digital information into neural signals? At that point, "hearing" might extend into every information format. So, again we must ask, who holds the password to your brain implant

Hacking the Bionic Man

As this technology is deployed in the population it is clear that there can be no final and fixed security solution. Most phone and computer users are now all too aware that new hardware, firmware, and operating systems always introduce new kinds of risks and threats. The same will be true of prostheses. The constant rat race to chase down security holes in new products upgrades will soon extend directly into human brains. As more people are exposed to medical device vulnerabilities, security awareness and improvement must become an integrated part of medical practice. This discussion can be easily extended to potential vulnerabilities that will arise from the inevitable integration into human bodies of not just electromechanical devices, but of ever more sophisticated biological technologies. The exploration of prosthesis security, loosely defined, gives some indication of the scope of the challenge ahead.

The class of things we call prostheses will soon expand beyond electromechanical devices to encompass biological objects such as 3D printed tissues and lab-grown organs. As these cell-based therapies begin to enter human clinical trials, we must assess the security of both the therapies themselves and the means used to create and administer them. If replacement organs and tissues are generated from cells derived from donors, what vulnerabilities do the donors have? How are those donor vulnerabilities passed along to the recipients? Yes, you have an immune system that does wonders most of the time. But are your natural systems up to the task of handling the biosecurity of augmented organs?

What does security even mean in this context? In addition to standard patient work-ups, should we begin to fully sequence the genomes of donor tissues, first to identify potential known health issues, and then to build a database that can be re-queried as new genetic links to disease are discovered? Are there security holes in the 3D printers and other devices used to manipulate cells and tissues? What are the long term security implications of deploying novel therapeutic tissues in large numbers of military and civilian personnel? What are the long-term security implications of using both donor and patient tissue as seeds of induced pluripotent stem cells, or of differentiating any stem cell line for use in therapies? Do we fully understand the complement of microbes and genomes that may be present in donor samples, or lying dormant in donor genomes, or that may be introduced via laboratory procedures and instruments used to process cells for use as therapies? What is the genetic security of a modified cell line or induced pluripotent stem cell? If there is a genetic modification embedded in your replacement heart tissue, where did the new DNA come from, and are you sure you know everything that it encodes? As with information technologies, we should expect that these new biological technologies will sometimes arrive with accidental vulnerabilities; they may also come with intentionally introduced back doors. The economic motivation to create new protheses, as well as to exploit vulnerabilities, will soon introduce market competition as a factor in biosecurity. 

Competition often drives perverse strategic decisions when it comes to security. Firms rush to sell hardware and software that are said to be secure, only to discover that constant updates are required to patch security holes. We are surrounded by products in endless beta. Worse yet, manufacturers have been known to sit on security holes in the naive hope that no one else will notice. Vendors sometimes appear no more literate about the security of hardware and software than are their customers. What will the world look like when eletromechanical and biological prostheses are similarly in constant states of upgrade? Who will you trust to build/print/grow a prosthesis? Are you going to place your faith in the FDA to police all these risks? (Really?) If you decide to instead place your faith in the market, how will you judge the trustworthiness of firms that sell aftermarket security solutions for your bionic leg or replacement liver?

The complexity of the task at hand is nearly overwhelming. Understanding the coming fusion of technologies will require competency in software, hardware, wetware, and security -- where are those skill sets being developed in a compatible, integrated manner? This just leads to more questions: Are there particular countries that will have a competitive advantage in this area? Are there particular countries that will be hotbeds of prosthesis malware creation and distribution?

The conception of security, whether of individuals or nation states, is going to change dramatically as we become ever more economically dependent upon the market for biological technologies. Given the spreading capability to participate and innovate in technology development, which inevitably amplifies the number and effect of vulnerabilities of all kinds, I suspect we need to re-envision at a very high level how security works.

[Coming soon: Part 3.]

 

Biosecurity is Everyone's Business (Part 1)

Part 1. The ecosystem is the enterprise

We live in a society increasingly reliant upon the fruits of nature. We consume those fruits directly, and we cultivate them as feedstocks for fuel, industrial materials, and the threads on our backs. As a measure of our dependence, revenues in the bioeconomy are rising rapidly, demonstrating a demand for biological products that is growing much faster than the global economy as a whole.

This demand represents an enormous market pull on technology development, commercialization, and, ultimately, natural resources that serve as feedstocks for biological production. Consequently, we must assess carefully the health and longevity of those resources. Unfortunately, it is becoming ever clearer that the natural systems serving to supply our demand are under severe stress. We have been assaulting nature for centuries, with the heaviest blows delivered most recently. Nature, in the most encompassing sense of the word, has been astonishingly resilient in the face of this assault. But the accumulated damage has cracked multiple holes in ecosystems around the globe. There are very clear economic costs to this damage -- costs that compound over time -- and the cumulative damage now poses a threat to the availability of the water, farmland, and organisms we rely on to feed ourselves and our economy.

I would like to clarify that I am not predicting collapse, nor that we will run out of resources; rather, I expect new technologies to continue increasing productivity and improving the human condition. Successfully developing and deploying those technologies will, obviously, further increase our economic dependency on nature. As part of that growing dependency, businesses that participate in the bioeconomy must understand and ensure the security of feedstocks, transportation links, and end use, often at a global scale. Consequently, it behooves us to thoroughly evaluate any vulnerabilities we are building into the system so that we can begin to prepare for inevitable contingencies.

Revisiting the definition of biosecurity: from national security to natural security, and beyond

Last year John Mecklin at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists asked me to consider the security implications of the emerging conversation (or, perhaps, collision) between synthetic biology and conservation biology. This conversation started at a meeting last April at the University of Cambridge, and is summarized in a recent article in Oryx. What I came up with for BAS was an essay that cast very broadly the need to understand threats to all of the natural systems we depend on. Quantifying the economic benefit of those systems, and the risk inherent in our dependence upon them, led me directly to the concept of natural security.

Here I want to take a stab at expanding the conversation further. Rapidly rising revenues in the bioeconomy, and the rapidly expanding scope of application, must critically inform an evolving definition of biosecurity. In other words, because economic demand is driving technology proliferation, we must continually refine our understanding of what it is that we must secure and from where threats may arise.

Biosecurity has typically been interpreted as the physical security of individuals, institutions, and the food supply in the context of threats such as toxins and pathogens. These will, of course, continue to be important concerns: new influenza strains constantly emerge to cause human and animal health concerns; the (re?)emergent PEDS virus has killed an astonishing 10% of U.S. pigs this year alone; within the last few weeks there has been an alarming uptick in the number of human cases and deaths caused by MERS. Beyond these natural threats are pathogens created by state and non-state organizations, sometimes in the name of science and preparation for outbreaks, while sometimes escaping containment to cause harm. Yet, however important these events are, they are but pieces of a biosecurity puzzle that is becoming ever more complex.

Due to the large and growing contribution of the bioeconomy, no longer are governments concerned merely with the proverbial white powder produced in a state-sponsored lab, or even in a 'cave' in Afghanistan. Because economic security is now generally included in the definition of national security, the security of crops, drug production facilities, and industrial biotech will constitute an ever more important concern. Moreover, in the U.S., as made clear by the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats(PDF), the government has established that encouraging the development and use of biological technologies in unconventional environments (i.e., "garages and basements") is central to national security. Consequently, the concept of biosecurity must comprise the entire value chain from academics and garage innovators, through production and use, to, more traditionally, the health of crops, farmanimals, and humans. We must endeavor to understand, and to buttress, fragility at every link in this chain.

Beyond the security of specific links in the bioeconomy value chain we must examine the explicit and implicit connections between them, because through our behavior we connect them. We transport organisms around the world; we actively breed plants, animals, and microbes; we create new objects with flaws; we emit waste into the world. It's really not that complicated. However, we often choose to ignore these connections because acknowledging them would require us to respect them, and consequently to behave differently. But that change in behavior must be the future of biosecurity. 

From an enterprise perspective, as we rely ever more heavily on biology in our economy, so must we comprehensively define 'biosecurity' to adequately encompass relevant systems. Vulnerabilities in those systems may be introduced intentionally or accidentally. An accidental vulnerability may lie undiscovered for years, as in the case of the recently disclosed Heartbleed hole in the OpenSSL internet security protocol, until it is identified, when it becomes a threat. The risk, even in open source software, is that the vulnerability may be identified by organizations which then exploit it before it becomes widely known. This is reported to be true of the NSA's understanding and exploitation of Heartbleed at least two years in advance of its recent public announcement. Our biosecurity challenge is to carefully, and constantly, assess how the world is changing and address shortcomings as we find them. It will be a transition every bit as painful as the one we are now experiencing for hardware and software security

(Here is Part 2.)

BAS: From national security to natural security

Here is my recent essay in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: "From national security to natural security".

The first few paragraphs:

From 10,000 meters up, the impact of humans on the Earth is clear. Cities spanning kilometers are connected by roadways stretching to the horizon. Crowding the spaces in between are fields that supply food and industrial feedstock to satisfy a variety of human hungers. These fields feed humanity. Through stewardship we maintain their productivity and thus sustain societies that extend around the globe; if these fields fall into ill health, or if we push them into sickness, we risk the fate of those same societies.

Humans have a long history of modifying the living systems they rely on. Forests in Europe and North America have been felled for timber and have regrown, while other large tracts of land around the world have been completely cleared for use in agriculture. The animals and plants we humans eat on a regular basis have been selected and bred over millennia to suit the human palate and digestive tract. All these crops and products are shipped and consumed globally to satisfy burgeoning demand.

Our technology and trade thereby support a previously unimaginable quality of life for a previously impossible number of people. Humanity has kept Malthus at bay through centuries of growth. Yet our increasing numbers impose a load that is now impacting nature's capacity to support human societies. This stress comes at a time when ever-larger numbers of humans demand more: more food, more clean water, more energy, more education, more entertainment, more more.

Increasing human demand raises the question of supply, and of the costs of meeting that supply. How we choose to spend or to conserve land, water, and air to meet our needs clearly impacts other organisms that also depend on these resources. Nature has intrinsic value for many people in the form of individual species, ecosystems, and wilderness; nature also constitutes critical infrastructure in the form of ecosystems that keep us alive. That infrastructure has quantifiable economic value. Consequently, nature, and the change we induce in it, is clearly interwoven with our economy. That is, the security and health of human societies depends explicitly upon the security and health of natural systems. Therefore, as economic security is now officially considered as part and parcel of national security strategy, it is time to expand our understanding of national security to include natural security.

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Harry Potter and The Future of Nature

How will Synthetic Biology and Conservation Shape the Future of Nature?  Last month I was privileged to take part in a meeting organized by The Wildlife Conservation Society to consider that question.  Here is the framing paper (PDF), of which I am a co-author.  There will be a follow-up paper in the coming months.  I am still mulling over what I think happened during the meeting, and below are a few observations that I have managed to settle on so far.  Others have written their own accounts.  Here is a summary from Julie Gould, riffing on an offer that Paul Freemont made to conservation biologists at the close of the meeting, "The Open Door".  Ed Gillespie has a lovely, must-read take on Pandora's Box, cane toads, and Emily Dickenson, "Hope is the thing with feathers".  Cristian Samper, the new head of the Wildlife Conservation Society was ultimately quite enthusiastic: Jim Thomas of ETC, unsurprisingly, not so much.

The meeting venue was movie set-like Cambridge.  My journey took me through King's Cross, with its requisite mock-up of a luggage trolley passing through the wall at platform nine and three-quarters.  So I am tempted to style parts of the meeting as a confrontation between a boyish protagonist trying to save the world and He Who Must Not Be Named.  But my experience at the meeting was that not everyone was able to laugh at a little tension-relieving humor, or even to recognize that humor.  Thus the title of this post is as much as I will give in temptation.

How Can SB and CB Collaborate?

I'll start with an opportunity that emerged during the week, exactly the sort of thing you hope would come from introducing two disciplines to each other.  What if synthetic biology could be used as a tool to aid in conservation efforts, say to buttress biodiversity against threats?  If the ongoing, astonishing loss of species were an insufficient motivation to think about this possibility, now some species that humans explicitly rely upon economically are under threat.    Synthetic biology might - might! - be able to offer help in the form of engineering species to be more robust in the face of a changing environment, such as enabling corals to cope with increases in water temperature and acidity, or it perhaps via intervening in a host-prey relationship, such as that between bats and white-nose disease or between bees and their mites and viruses.

The first thing to say here is that if the plight of various species can be improved through changes in human behavior then we should by all means work toward that end.  The simpler solution is usually the better solution.  For example, it might be a good idea to stop using those pesticides and antibiotics that appear to create more problems than they solve when introduced into the environment.  Moreover, at the level of the environment and the economy, technological fixes are probably best reserved until we try changes in human behavior.  After all, we've mucked up such fixes quite a few times already.  (All together now: "Cane Toad Blues".)  But what if the damage is too far along and cannot be addressed by changes in behavior?  We should at least consider the possibility that a technological fix might be worth a go, if for no other reason that to figure out how to create a back up plan.  Given the time scales involved in manipulating complex organisms, exploring the option of a back-up plan means getting started early.  It also means thoughtfully considering which interventions would be most appropriate and urgent, where part of the evaluation should probably involve asking whether changes in human behavior are likely to have any effect.  In some cases, a technical solution is likely to be our only chance.

First up: corals. We heard from Stanford's Steve Palumbi on work to understand the effects of climate change on corals in the South Pacific.  Temperature and acidity - two parameters already set on long term changes - are already affecting coral health around the globe.  But it turns out that in the lab some corals can handle remarkably difficult environmental conditions.  What if we could isolate the relevant genetic circuits and, if necessary, transplant them into other species, or turn them on if they are already widespread?  My understanding of Professor Palumbi's talk is that it is not yet clear why some corals have the pathway turned on and some do not.  So, first up, a bunch of genetics, molecular biology, and field biology to figure out why the corals do what they do.  After that, if necessary, it seems that it would be worth exploring whether other coral species can be modified to use the relevant pathways.  Corals are immensely important for the health of both natural ecosystems and human economies; we should have a back-up plan, and synthetic biology could certainly contribute.

Next up: bats. Bats are unsung partners of human agriculture, and they contribute an estimated $23 billion annually to U.S. farmers by eating insects and pollinating various plants.  Here is nice summary article from The Atlantic by Stephanie Gruner Buckely on the impact upon North American bats of white nose syndrome.  The syndrome, caused by a fungus evidently imported from Europe, has already killed so many bats that we may see an impact on agriculture as soon as this year.  European bats are resistant to the fungus, so one option would be to try to introduce the appropriate genes into North American bats via standard breeding.  However, bats breed very slowly, usually only having one pup a year, and only 5 or so pups in a lifetime.  Given the mortality rate due to white nose syndrome, this suggests breeding is probably too slow to be useful in conservation efforts.  What if synthetic biology could be used to intervene in some way, either to directly attack the non-native fungus or to interfere with its attack on bats.  Obviously this would be a hard problem to take on, but both biodiversity and human welfare would be improved by making progress here.

And now: bees. If you eat, you rely on honeybees.  Due to a variety of causes, bee populations have fallen to the point where food crops are in jeopardy.  Entomologist Dennis vanEngelstorp, quoted in Wired, warns "We're getting closer and closer to the point where we don't have enough bees in this country to meet pollination demands.  If we want to grow fruits and nuts and berries, this is important.  One in every three bites [of food consumed in the U.S.] is directly or indirectly pollinated by bees."  Have a look at the Wired article for a summary of the constellation of causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD -- they are multifold and interlocking.  Obviously, the first thing to do is to stop making the problem worse; Europe has banned a class of pesticide that is exceptionally hard on honeybees, though the various sides in this debate continue to argue about whether that will make any difference.  This change in human behavior may have some impact, but most experts agree we need to do more.  Efforts are underway to breed bees that are resistant to both pesticides and to particular mites that prey on bees and that transmit viruses between bees.  Applying synthetic biology here might be the hardest task of all, given the complexity of the problem.  Should synthetic biologists focus on boosting apian immune systems?  Should they focus on the mite?  Apian viruses?  It sounds very difficult.  But with such a large fraction of our food supply dependent upon healthy bees, it also seems pretty clear that we should be working on all fronts to sort out potential solutions.

A Bit of Good News

Finally, a problem synthetic biologists are already working to solve: malaria.  The meeting was fortunate to hear directly from Jay Keasling.  Keasling presented progress on a variety of fronts, but the most striking was his announcement that Sanofi-Aventis has produced substantially more artemisinin this year than planned, marking real progress in producing the best malaria drug extant using synthetic biology rather than by purifying it from plants.  Moreover, he announced that Sanofi and OneWorldHealth are likely to take over the entire world production of artemisinin.  The original funding deal between The Gates Foundation, OneWorldHealth, Amyris, and Sanofi required selling at cost.  The collaboration has worked very hard at bringing the price down, and now it appears that they can simply outcompete the for-profit pricing monopoly.

The stated goal of this effort is to reduce the cost of malaria drugs and provide inexpensive cures to the many millions of people who suffer from malaria annually.  Currently, the global supply fluctuates, as, consequently, do prices, which are often well above what those afflicted can pay.  A stable, high volume source of the drug would reduce prices and also reduce the ability of middle-men to sell doctored, diluted, or mis-formulated artemisinin, all of which are contributing to a rise of resistant pathogens.

There is a potential downside to this project.  If Sanofi and OneWorldHealth do corner the market on artemisinin, then farmers who currently grow artemisia will no longer have that option, at least for supplying the artemisinin market.  That might be a bad thing, so we should at least ask the question of whether the world is a better place with artemisinin production done in vats or derived from plants.  This question can be broken into two pieces: 1) what is best for the farmers? and 2) what is best for malaria sufferers?  It turns out these questions have the same answer.

There is no question that people who suffer from malaria will be better off with artemisinin produced in yeast by Sanofi.  Malaria is a debilitating disease that causes pain, potentially death, and economic hardship.  The best estimates are that countries in which malaria is endemic suffer a hit to GDP growth of 1.3% annually compared to non-malarious countries.  Over just a few years this yearly penalty swamps all the foreign aid those countries receive; I've previously argued that eliminating malaria would be the biggest humanitarian achievement in history and would make the world a much safer place.  Farmers in malarious countries are the worst hit, because the disease prevents them from getting into the fields to work.  I clashed in public over this with Jim Thomas around our respective testimonies in front of the Presidential Bioethics Commission a couple of years ago.  Quoting myself briefly from the relevant blog post,

The human cost of not producing inexpensive artemisinin in vats is astronomical.  If reducing the burden of malaria around the world on almost 2 billion people might harm "a few thousand" farmers, then we should make sure those farmers can make a living growing some other crop.  We can solve both problems.  ...Just one year of 1.3% GDP growth recovered by reducing (eliminating?) the impact of malaria would more than offset paying wormwood farmers to grow something else.  There is really no argument to do anything else.

For a bit more background on artemisinin supply and pricing, and upon the apparent cartel in control of pricing both the drug and the crop, see this piece in Nature last month by Mark Peplow.  I was surprised to learn that that the price of artemisia is set by a small group that controls production of the drug.  This group, unsurprisingly, is unhappy that they may lose control of the market for artemisinin to a non-profit coalition whose goal is to eliminate the disease.  Have a look at the chart titled "The Cost of Progress", which reveals substantial price fluctuations, to which I will return below.

Mr. Thomas responded to Keasling's announcement in Cambridge with a broadside in the Guardian UK against Keasling and synthetic biology more generally.  Mr. Thomas is always quick to shout "What about the farmers?"  Yet he is rather less apt to offer actual analysis of what farmers actually gain, or lose, by planting artemisia.

The core of the problem for farmers is in that chart from Nature, which shows that artemisinin has fluctuated in price by a factor of 3 over the last decade.  Those fluctuations are bad for both farmers and malaria sufferers; farmers have a hard time knowing whether it makes economic sense to plant artemisia, which subsequently means shortages if farmers don't plant enough.  Shortages mean price spikes, which causes more farmers to plant, which results in oversupply, which causes the price to plunge, etc.  You'll notice that Mr. Thomas asserts that farmers know best, but he never himself descends to the level of looking at actual numbers, and whether farmers benefit by growing artemisia.  The numbers are quite revealing.

Eyeballing "The Cost of Progress" chart, it looks like artemisia has been below the $400/kg level for about half the last 10 years.  To be honest, there isn't enough data on the chart to make firm conclusions, but it does look like the most stable price level is around $350/kg, with rapid and large price spikes up to about $1000/kg.  Farmers who time their planting right will probably do well; those who are less lucky will make much less on the crop.  So it goes with all farming, unfortunately, as I am sure Mr. Thomas would agree.

During his talk, Keasling put up a chart I hadn't seen before, which showed predicted farmer revenues for a variety of crops.  The chart is below; it makes clear that farmers will have substantially higher revenues planting crops other than artemisia at prices at or below $400/kg. 

The Strange Arguments Against Microbial Production of Malaria Drugs

Mr. Thomas' response in the Guardian to rational arguments and actual data was a glib accusation that Keasling is dismissing the welfare of farmers with "Let them plant potatoes".  This is actually quite clever and witty, but not funny in the slightest when you look at the numbers.  Thomas worries that farmers in African and Asia will suffer unduly from a shift away from artemisia to yeast.  But here is the problem: those farmers are already suffering -- from malaria.  Digging deeper, it becomes clear that Mr. Thomas is bafflingly joining the pricing cartel in arguing against the farmers' best interests.

A brief examination of the latest world malaria map shows that the most intense malaria hot spots are in Africa and Asia, with South America not far behind (here is the interactive CDC version).  Artemisia is primarily grown in Africa and Asia.  That is, farmers most at risk of contracting malaria only benefit economically when there is a shortage of artemisinin, the risk of which is maintained by leaving artemisia production in the hands of farmers. Planting sufficient quantities of artemisia to meet demand means prices that are not economically viable for the farmer.  There are some time lags here due to growing and processing the crop into the drug, but the upshot is that the only way farmers make more money planting artemisia than other crops is when there is a shortage.  This is a deadly paradox, and its existence has only one beneficiary: the artemisinin pricing cartel.  But we can now eliminate the paradox.  It is imperative for us to do so.

Once you look at the numbers there is no argument Mr. Thomas, or anyone else, can make that we should do anything but brew artemisinin in vats and bring the price as low as possible.

I had previously made the macro-scale economic arguments about humanitarian impacts economic growth.  Malarious countries, and all the farmers in them, would benefit tremendously by a 1.3% annual increase in GDP.  But I only realized while writing this post that the micro-scale argument gives the same answer: the farmers most at risk from malaria only make money growing artemisia when there is a shortage of the drug, which is when they are most likely to be affected by the disease.

I get along quite well in person with Mr. Thomas, but I have long been baffled by his arguments about artemisinin.  I heartily support his aims of protecting the rights of farmers and taking care of the land.  We should strive to do the right thing, except when analysis reveals it to be the wrong thing.  Since I only just understood the inverse relationship between artemisinin pricing and the availability of the drug to the very farmers growing artemisia, I am certain Mr. Thomas has not had the opportunity to consider the facts and think through the problem so that he might come to the same conclusion.  I invite him to do so.

Are These The Drones We're Looking For? (Part IV)

(Part 1, Drones for Destruction, Construction, and DistributionPart II, Pirate Hunting in the CloudsPart III, Photos, Bullets, and SmugglingPart IV, The Coming War Overhead)

The Coming War Overhead

Are you ready for drone dogfights?  How about combat flocks and swarms?  They are coming.  And they will be over your head before you know it.

From my office window I am fortunate to often see eagles and hawks in flight over Seattle's Lake Union. These raptors are regularly harassed by smaller birds attempting to run off potential predators or competitors.  Each species - whether predator and prey - clearly employs different tactics based on size, speed, armaments, number of combatants, etc.  Within a few years this aerial combat will become a frequent sight in the U.S., but rather than raptors, crows, and gulls, the combatants will be drones of all shapes and sizes.  I am not at all sure that we are adequately prepared, or whether we are adequately planning, for the strange world ahead.

This battle will be engaged on many different fronts. Left, right, black hat, white hat, criminal, law enforcement: all will have the same tools at their disposal. Even if federal, state, and local agencies have early access to hand-me down technologies developed for military applications, they will be up against a large number of innovators, many of whom come from open-source, hacker communities where innovation runs faster than anywhere else.

I have outlined the playing field (Quidditch pitch?) in prior installments. The capability to produce and hack drones is already widely distributed. Drones can now cooperate in swarms to build structures, play music, and play catch. Economic incentives - as well as the cool factor - strongly favor the development of ever less expensive and ever more capable drones to be used for photography, shipping, data storage, and communications, just to name a few applications. As drones and the services they provide become more valuable, and as they inevitably become useful for supplying illicit products such as drugs and pirated music and movies, attempts at regulating drone use are likely to increase demand. This is the very definition of 'perverse incentives'. Yet with the capability to produce drones already so democratized, the only way to limit their use is likely to be direct force. And thus the combat capabilities of even simple drones will, like printing, file-sharing, and every market for every illicit drug, become an arena of continual technological oneupmanship. Drone enthusiasts who work on national security issues have already started a "Drone Smackdown" tourney to explore tactics in their spare time.

So it isn't at all hard to imagine that somewhere down this road we will see a mashup of cheap drones and the sort of Shanzai warfare recently seen in Libya, and now in Syria, in which irregular forces hack together their own knock-off versions of much more expensive (and much more capable) weapons systems they have probably only seen on the Internet. But those DIY weapons systems seem to have done the job. So, too, will Shanzai combat drones.

Here is what we can look forward to: projectiles, nets, lasers or LEDs to blind cameras, strings dropped or shot onto rotors, aerosol cans turned into flying flamethrowers, salt water spray, chaff to disrupt near-field or optical communications, and simple electronic jamming. And each offensive mode will breed countermeasures. The fruits of idle and motivated minds will germinate. Almost any cheap drone will probably have a spare servo circuit or two to control on-board munitions. Adding capacity will be trivial. Remember: many drones are already flying smart phones, so whatever the mission, there's an app for that (see Pt I).

There will be casualties in these confrontations.  The drones, certainly, will suffer.  But sometimes the countermeasures will miss, causing damage to whatever and whomever is downrange.  And when drones are successfully destroyed, they will fall down.  Onto things.  And onto people.  Such as when a Sheriff's Department in Texas dropped a big drone onto it's own SWAT team. Fortunately, the team was sheltered inside their armored car; we should all be so lucky.

In short, the drivers for an arms race are multifold: potential invasion of privacy by government or commercial drones (see Pt. III), attack and defense of file sharing swarms, attacks on (or hijacking of) and defense of cargo drones.  As costs fall, and capabilities improve, novel applications will emerge that will in turn drive ever more innovation in drone weapons systems, especially in countermeasures.

Regardless of what the rules are, of what the FAA and other authorities decide to allow, the economic incentives to employ drones as I have described above will drive behavior. There are just no two ways about it. We will be seeing some version of the world I have described in this series of posts. Consequently, any regulatory should facilitate the safe use of drones rather than attempt to constrain their use. What troubles me, and what motivated me to explore this topic, is that ongoing discussions of drone regulations will completely miss both the economic drivers and the technological ferment making it all possible. I'd like to be wrong about that, but history is likely to be an excellent guide. In the case of drones, as in every other attempt to regulate a democratized technology that serves a large and growing market, black markets will emerge. Nefarious applications of drones are inevitable, and poorly conceived regulation will be an accelerant that makes the problem worse. This is not an argument that all regulation is bad, merely an argument that regulation will be as poorly considered and poorly applied to drones as it was in all the other technological cases I have studied.

Finally, we must remember, first and foremost, that humans will continue to be the targets of armed drones wherever they fly. And, like the raptors that inspired me to think about drone combat, U.S. innovations in arming drones will come home to roost. That is the world we should be preparing for; have no illusions otherwise.

Are These The Drones We're Looking For? (Part III)

(Pt I, Drones for Destruction, Construction, and Distribution; Pt II, Pirate Hunting in the Clouds)

Photos, Bullets, and Smuggling

Unmanned aerial photography drones look to be the next big thing. They also look to be highly annoying and invasive. Earlier this year, the New York Times described a Los Angeles drone operator who had already been approached by paparazzi to take photos of celebrities.  Until regulatory issues got in the way, his previous job was in aerial real-estate photography, where there is also big demand. The Times article describes how the FAA must decide on rules for commercial drone use in aerial photography, among many other applications, by 2015. But it is the paparazzi gig that should get you thinking.

The reason the paparazzi take photos of famous people is money.  Famous people have money, and notoriety, and other people for some reason pay to peek in their windows and, frankly, up their skirts.  What is going to happen when paparazzi start to use drones?  Let's call these robots dronarazzi. (According to Wikipedia, the word paparazzi comes from Fellini's La Dolce Vita and is meant to suggest an annoying, buzzing, insect.  My neologism may be superfluous given the racket current drones make, but it seems important to distinguish between humans and drones, don't you think?)  Very quickly after dronarazzi appear, famous people will attempt to use their money to get laws passed against them. Those laws will turn out to be unenforceable due to the profusion of hardware so cheap that it is disposable.  Famous, wealthy people will then spend some of their money to physically remove the annoyance of the dronarazzi.  And there it begins: drone countermeasures.

Drones have already been the subject of armed confrontation within U.S. borders.  Recently, hunters in Texas unhappy about a surveillance drone flown by animal rights activists proceeded to pretend it was a game bird.  The shoot-down was likely illegal; undoubtedly lawsuits are afoot.  As more drones take to the sky, there will certainly be more such confrontations.  Surveillance drones flown by law enforcement agencies, the DEA, and U.S. Customs will certainly be targets.  Even before law enforcement agencies find themselves involved in daily skirmishes we will see countermeasures innovations crop up in -- no surprise here -- California.  Hollywood, to be specific. I would expect the first dronarazzi shoot-downs to happen fairly soon, even before the FAA sorts out the relevant regulations. And given how frequently paparazzi crash their cars into each other, their subjects, and bystanders, we can expect dronarazzi to cause analogous physical damage.

But look ahead just a bit, beyond photography, to a time when drones are providing real-time traffic or crowd monitoring, perhaps combined with face recognition, which you, the surveilled, may not want to allow.  What will the market look like for gizmos that prevent airborne cameras from imaging your face?  Or what about when small, VTOL drones are actually moving stuff around in the real world.  That stuff could conceivably be your latest, packet-switched delivery from Amazon, or it could be the latest methamphetamine delivery from your drug dealer; it will be hard to tell the difference without physical inspection.  Law enforcement will want to track -- and almost certainly to inspect -- those cargoes, and many a sender and recipient will want to thwart both tracking and inspection.

The rules for drone flight set by the FAA will probably attempt to spell out specific allowed uses.  This decision will be informed both by 9/11 and by recent U.S. combat experience. We might see the definition of specific drone flight corridors, or specific drone flight characteristics, and federal, state, and local authorities may demand the ability to override the controls on drones through back doors in software.  But those back doors will be vulnerable to misuse, and are likely to be nailed shut even by above-board drone operators.  Who wants to loose control of a drone to the hacker kid next door? And, obviously, the economic incentive to cheat in the face of any drone flight or construction regulations will be absolutely enormous.  Many people will make the calculation (probably correctly) that, in the unlikely event that a suspect drone itself is caught or disabled, the operator will walk away scot-free because it simply may not be possible to identify her.  Yet I suspect that whatever the rules forwarded by the FAA, and whatever powers of intervention in drone activity are given to law enforcement, that it will all come down to whether people can be physically prevented from doing what they want with drones.  That is, can drone flight rules actually be enforced without the hands-on ability to capture or shut down scofflaw drones and operators?  The answer, very likely, is no, especially given the existing community of drone hackers who are proficient at producing both hardware and software. This brings us back to the proliferation of physical and electronic countermeasures.  And I question whether we are adequately planning for the future.

(Part 1, Drones for Destruction, Construction, and DistributionPart II, Pirate Hunting in the CloudsPart III, Photos, Bullets, and SmugglingPart IV, The Coming War Overhead)

Are These The Drones We're Looking For? (Part II)

(Pt 1, Drones for Destruction, Construction, and Distribution)

Pirate Hunting in the Clouds

Piracy is a perennial weed. For example, coordinated efforts to shut down electronic file sharing have had little effect; you can still find anything you want online.  The reason, of course, is that pirate hunters are always playing catchup to technological innovation that facilitates the anonymous movement of bits.  That should be no surprise to anyone involved, because the same sort of technological struggle has been present in print piracy since the days of Johannes Gutenberg.  Music, game, and movie piracy is just the same game on a new field.

The latest innovation in file sharing looks to be drones.  Two groups, The Pirate Bay (TPB) and Electronic Countermeasures, are building swarms of file-sharing drones meant to decentralize information storage and communications. TPB, in particular, propounds an ideology of sharing everything they can get their hands on by any means available. Says one contributor, "Everyone knows WHAT TPB is. Now they're going to have to think about WHERE TPB is."  File sharing may soon be located both metaphorically and physically in the clouds.

How will pirate-hunters respond to airborne, file-sharing drones?  Attempts will certainly be made to regulate airborne networks.  But that approach will probably fail, because regulation rarely makes headway against ideology.  Along with regulation will come electronic efforts to disrupt drone networks by jamming broadcasts and disrupting intraswarm communications.  That is likely to fail as well, because the drone networks will employ frequency bands used for many other devices, which will make drone-specific jamming technologically implausible, especially in signal-rich, urban environments.  Finally, both government and industry will embark on physically attacking the drones (to which I return to in a moment).  But that isn't going to work either, because drones will soon be cheap enough to fire and forget.

At the moment, the hardware for each of the file-sharing drones is a bit pricy, north of $1000.  Inevitably, the cost will come down.  Quite capable toy quadcopters are available for only a few hundred dollars, whereas just a few years ago the same bird cost thousands.  You can be sure that other form factors will be used, too.  Fixed-wing and lighter-than-air drones are experiencing the same pressure for innovation as four-, six-, and eight-bladed 'copters.  Regardless of what sort of drones are employed in the network, any concerted effort to physically disrupt drones will simply result in more innovation and cost reduction by those who want to keep them in the air.  The economic motivation to fly drones in the face of regulations is compelling, whether for smuggling atoms or bits, and as a result there is every reason to think there will be clouds of drones in the air relatively soon.

As we start down this road, what's missing from the conversation is a concerted effort to ask, "What's next?"  Authorities might imagine they can constrain access to the physical hardware, but the manufacturing of drones is already well beyond anyone's control.  Any attempt at restricting access or use will merely create perverse incentives for greater innovation.

Hackers regularly modify commercially available drones to their own ends.  Beyond what comes in a kit, structural components for drones can be 3D-printed, with open source CAD files and parts lists available at Thingverse and other repositories.  Whatever mechanical parts (such as propellers) that are not now easily printable will undoubtedly soon be, and in any case can be easily molded in a variety of plastics.  MIT just announced a project to develop printable robots.  While the MIT paper 'bots are described as being terrestrial, you have to imagine that boffins are already cooking up aerial versions.  Contributing to the air of innovation, DARPA even runs a crowd-sourced UAV design competition, UAVForge.

So much for the hardware; what about control software? The University of Pennsylvania's Vijay Kumar and his collaborators at the GRASP Lab literally have drones jumping through hoops on command, and cooperating both to fly in formation and to build large structures. This academic project will certainly result in the publication of papers describing the relevant control algorithms, and quite probably the publication of the control code itself.  Imagining GRASP Lab projects out in the wild gives you something to think about.  When you put all this together, the combination of distributed designs and distributed manufacturing employing readily available motors and drive electronics mean that, in the words of open source advocate Bruce Perens, "innovation has gone public".  (For more on that meme, see Perens' The Emerging Economic Paradigm of Open Source.)  As a result, there is no physical means available to law enforcement, or to anyone else, to either control access to drones or to control their use.  Combining wide access to hardware with inevitably open-source control code will produce a profusion of drone swarms. And yet some authorities will inevitably try to restrict access and use of drones, both in the name of public safety and to maintain a technological edge over putative scofflaws.  Up next: what if attempts at regulation just make things worse?

 

(Part 1, Drones for Destruction, Construction, and DistributionPart II, Pirate Hunting in the CloudsPart III, Photos, Bullets, and SmugglingPart IV, The Coming War Overhead)

Are These The Drones We're Looking For? (Part I)

Drones for Destruction, Construction, and Distribution

Drones, it seems, are everywhere. The news is full of the rapidly expanding use of drones in combat.   The U.S. government uses drones daily to gather intelligence and to kill people.   Other organizations, ranging from organized militaries in China, Israel, and Iran to militias like Hezbollah, aspire to possess similar capabilities.  Amateurs are in the thick of it, too; if a recent online video is to be believed, a few months of effort is all that is necessary to develop a DIY drone capable of deploying DIY antipersonnel ordinance.

Lest we think drones are only used to create mayhem, they are used to create beauty.  Last year's lovely art project Flight Assembled Architecture employed a centrally-controlled swarm of small drones to build a complex, curving tower 6 meters tall.  Operating in a highly controlled environment, fully outfitted with navigational aides, each drone had to position itself precisely in six degrees of freedom (three in space, and three in rotation) in order to place each building block.  As our urban areas become sensor-rich environments, drones will soon have these remarkable navigational capabilities just about anywhere people live at high densities, namely urban environments.

To understand the future capabilities of drones, you need merely think of them as flying smartphones running apps.  That's not a great leap, because smartphones are already used as the brains for some drones.  The availability of standard iPhones and Android phones has enabled a thriving market of third-party apps that provide ever new capabilities to the user.  Drone platforms will benefit from analogous app development.  Moreover, as hardware improves, so will the capabilities of apps.  For example, Broadcom recently announced a new chip that enables the integration of multiple kinds of signals -- GPS, magnetometer, altimeter, wi-fi, cell phone tower, gyroscopes, etc. -- and that "promises to indicate location ultra-precisely, possibly within a few centimeters, vertically and horizontally, indoors and out."  The advertised application of that chip is for cell phones, but you can be sure the chips will find their way into drones, if only via cell phones, and will then quickly be utilized by guidance apps.  Whatever the drone mission may be, there will be an app for that.

When those individual, sensor-laden drones can cooperate, things get even more interesting.   Vijay Kumar's recent TED talk has must-see video of coordinated swarms of quad-rotor drones.  The drones, built at the GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, fly in formation, map outdoor and indoor environments, and as an ensemble play music on oversized instruments (see Double-O-Drone).  As you watch the videos, pay close attention to how well the drones understand their own position and speed, and how that information improves their flight capabilities.  When equipped with GPS and other sorts of sensors, drones are clearly capable of not just finding their way around complex environments but also of manipulating those environments.  At the moment, the drones' brains are actually in a stationary computer, with both sensory data and flight instructions wirelessly broadcast to and fro.  Moore's Law guarantees that those brains - including derivatives of the aforementioned Broadcom chip - will soon reside on the drones, thereby enabling real-time, local control, which will be necessary for autonomous operations at any real distance from home base.  The drones will become birds.  But these birds will have vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities, substantial load-carrying capacity, and will be able to work together towards ends set by humans.

A company called Matternet is already planning to exploit these capabilities.  The company's initial business model involves transporting goods in developing countries that lack adequate infrastructure.  If this strategy is successful, and if it can be scaled up, it will negate the need to build much of the fixed infrastructure that exists in the developed world.  It is a 21st century version of the Pony Express: think packet-switching, which makes the internet work efficiently, but for atoms rather than for bits.

Matternet plans that the first goods moved this way will be small, high value, perishables like pharmaceuticals.  But cargo size needn't be limited.  As Vijay Kumar pointed out in his TED talk, drones can cooperate to lift and transport larger objects.  While undoubtedly power or fuel will constrain some of these plans until technology catches up to aspirations, drones will inevitably be used to move larger and larger objects over longer and longer distances.  The technology will also be used very soon in the U.S.  The FAA has been directed to come up with rules for commercial drone use by 2015, and must sort out how to enable emergency agencies to use drones in 2012.  There are already 61 organizations in the U.S. with permission to fly drones in civilian airspace.  Yet rather less thought has been given to drone use outside the rules.  We are planning for drones, after a fashion, but what about after they arrive?

(Part 1, Drones for Destruction, Construction, and DistributionPart II, Pirate Hunting in the CloudsPart III, Photos, Bullets, and SmugglingPart IV, The Coming War Overhead)