Synthetic biology and weapons of war

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A few years ago, Eric Klavins found himself starting at the ceiling of his room in the Athenaeum, a private lodging on the grounds of the California Institute of Technology, in the middle of the night. Unable to sleep, Klavins found himself pondering a question that had been posed to him earlier that day at a meeting.

Klavins, a robotics researcher, was funded by grants from the US Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on robot self-organization: making many simple robots work together to assemble themselves into a shape or structure. While working on the grants, Klavins would routinely be called into meetings to discuss his work with various defense officials, and it was at one of these meetings that a Defense Department researcher had posed his question.

“He said, ‘Do you think you could figure out how something that has been broken up into lots of little pieces could be reassembled so we could figure out what it was?’” Klavins recalls.

Klavins spent hours thinking about how one could actually do it. Then, he realized, he had no idea why one would even want to – and hadn’t asked that question at all during all the years he worked with defense department funding. He suddenly felt uncomfortable about that.

“It bothered me that someone would spend their time studying how things get blown up and working to make things get blown up better,” Klavins says.

Not long after, Klavins decided to steer away from defense funding and towards applications in biology and medical research that are part of the realm of synthetic biology – the field of science that tries to turn biology into more of an engineering discipline.

But if Klavins thought that the change would help him escape the moral dilemmas that used to keep him up in the middle of the night, he was wrong. The US Department of Defense has emerged as one of the major funders of synthetic biology; last week, for instance, DARPA accepted proposals for a highly coveted set of grants in a new program, Living Foundries, that aims to “enable the rapid development of previously unattainable technologies and products, leveraging biology to solve challenges associated with production of new materials, novel capabilities, fuel and medicines.”

The Office of Naval Research also funds heavily in synthetic biology as well. And while most DoD-funded projects so far have not specifically focused on military applications, that can’t be said of a recent “statement of need” that asked synthetic biologists for their ideas on how the technology could be used to make greener explosives [PDF].

Klavins’s fellow synthetic biologists seem largely unconcerned with the fact that the military is becoming an ever-larger presence in their field.

They point out that the military doesn’t press them to work on particular applications, and lets them freely pursue basic research on fundamental questions. They argue that defense department funding – particularly from agencies such as DARPA – has enabled the development of myriad civilian applications, such as the global positioning system and the Internet. And indeed, many scientists are grateful that the generals are stepping in when traditional, more conservative agencies such as the US National Institutes of Health have largely declined to fund the field.

But to Klavins, these arguments sound familiar, and he has an answer for every one of them.

“People will say that everything has a dual use; you can use a transistor in a laptop or an ICBM” – an inter-continental ballistic missile – he says. “But if you work really hard at the laptop you’ll come up with that application before the ICBM.”

“It’s a question about what uses you explore first, and I’d rather have them be in energy, the environment, and global health.”

These arguments will sound familiar to physical scientists and engineers, who have debated them for decades: physics gave the world nuclear weapons in World War Two, and engineers at Texas Instruments devised laser-guided bombs that were deployed to deadly effect by the Air Force in Vietnam.

Biologists have of late been spared these dilemmas, as President Nixon officially dismantled the nation’s biological weapons program in 1969.

But synthetic biology is about transforming biology into an engineering discipline, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the field is confronting the same sorts of questions that may be familiar to physical scientists and engineers.

So far, Klavins is a relatively lone voice in the wilderness.

But that may change as more of his colleagues find themselves staring at the ceiling in the wee hours of the dawn, pondering puzzling questions about ways that they never imagined their research would be used.

What do you think? Does it matter where a researcher’s funding comes from? Would we have fewer destructive technologies if fewer researchers agreed to work with money from agencies that create them?

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Photo: Texas Instruments Bolt-117 Laser Guided Bomb on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Photo courtesy US Air Force.

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10 thoughts on “Synthetic biology and weapons of war

  1. One of physicists’ answers to Klavins’ dilemma is that “pure” physics is amoral, non-moral, until the engineers start applying it to things. I.e., fissioning atoms vs nuclear bombs. I know — this just sharpens Klavins’ dilemma. I find this whole question to be fascinating and one slippery slope after another.

    Beautifully handled, Erika, as I’d have expected.

  2. Also, wasn’t Nixon’s banning of bioweapons a response to the famous conference of biologists — I think at Asilomar — that decided against the slope down which physicists had already slid?

  3. “Forward, the Light Brigade!”
    Was there a man dismay’d?
    Not tho’ the soldier knew
    Someone had blunder’d:
    Theirs not to make reply,
    Theirs not to reason why,
    Theirs but to do and die:
    Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.

    If you’re in the pay of the military, you can reasonably expect to find yourself a hired killer, one way or another.

    Another approach people take to this issue is adopting a Peaceful Use Policy (Example: http://www.sinclairinterplanetary.com/peacefulusepolicy).

  4. One year at DARPATech, the (bleak) running joke among the defense journalists was that DARPA was all about blowing up people and then finding novel ways to put them back together again (see: DARPA next-generation prosthetic).

    I tend to be agnostic about military funding because to me, it’s all about the application. The important question, I think, is: what’s the telos of military-funded synthetic biology research? Robots that can self-assemble at a molecular level? Or engineered super viruses?

  5. Interesting. Would it be ethically/morally more palatable to work with/for the military if the tech you’re developing is intended to kill less people than the existing tech(i.e., improved weapons efficiency)?

  6. Ann: that line between “pure” and “applied” is definitely muddy. But the Asilomar conference on proper use of recombinant DNA happened in 1975, after Nixon abolished the offensive weapons program in 1969. There are lots of interesting things to say about why the program was abolished and whether the conditions that necessitated its end still apply today.

    Jessa – A very wise policy. I think biotech hasn’t had to confront this issue in the same way as engineers yet, but synthetic biology companies are trying to devise similar policies. It’s a bit difficult when you’re dealing with information rather than tangible pieces of technology.

    Sally – The United States still abides by the Biological Weapons Convention, which forbids the making of offensive biological weapons. How far one can go in the name of defense, though, is a separate question.

    Sid: That’s definitely an argument that some synthetic biologists make – see for instance Andy Ellington in my Nature story: http://www.nature.com/news/bioengineers-debate-use-of-military-money-1.9409.

  7. Klavins was wondering why this question was asked: “Do you think you could figure out how something that has been broken up into lots of little pieces could be reassembled so we could figure out what it was?”

    It’s because the U.S. has technological superiority over other countries, but if our technology fell into the hands of those countries, they could potentially reverse engineer it and ruin our advantage.

    Thus, it is important to know how well we can self-destruct the technology into tiny pieces so another country could not put it back together again.

    The military often asks questions (“Could you do X?”) without the intent to do X. Why? If we know the feasibility of doing X, BEFORE other countries, then we know if it’s worthwhile to defend against X. This is called preventing technological surprise.

    I am sometimes dismayed by academics who criticize the military without understanding the way they think. It’s ignorance, not righteousness.

  8. Hi Howard,

    Erika’s article only states that I spent a few hours working on a problem without questioning it. The fact some academic researchers are happy to solve whatever problems you throw at them without really questioning, and the sense that I was becoming one of them, is what disturbed me.

    Issue #1: People seem to be saying: “If we are going to make bombs, we might as well make them greener.” Or: “If we are going to make bombs, we might as well make them hard to put back together after they explode.”

    Not a small number of academics make this argument. It only works, though, if you agree with the “If we are going to make bombs” part — which I don’t. I emphatically believe that we spend way too much time and effort on weapons in this country and have decided I want no part of it. I don’t want to make them. I don’t want to enable others to make them by answering the question “Could you do X?”.

    Issue #2: The way one answers the question “could you make X” is by building a prototype. Here are some questions for you, Howard: Could you build a virus that selectively infects Irish people? Could you make a probiotic that secretes ricin when it senses its host is lactose intolerant? Of course you could ask these questions differently so you don’t sound like you want weapons. Can you make a bacterium that “enables on-demand production of new and high-value materials, devices and capabilities” and then create a $30M program* to get academics to explore it. The academics will come rushing in because that sounds so cool. And they will say things like “my research is out in the open” and “the US doesn’t work on bio-weapons” and “nothing I work on could ever be useful”.

    Then, as the quarterly meetings with military researchers go on for the next 5-10 years, ideas are thrown around, and newer capabilities, newer questions, and newer possibilities for how bad guys can do bad things are generated. DOD thinkers think about DOD things. Its what they do. Two generations of graduate students grow up thinking about defense capabilities for synthetic biology. Academics make prototypes of all of these ideas (DARPA wants results and demos — a good chunk of that $30M will go to gene synthesis) as proof of principle, and the whole effort becomes that much more sophisticated. Eventually we get deployable capabilities that go into production because somebody realizes they’ve got something that can create “strategic surprise”** .

    Think that sounds crazy? This process is how the question “can you make a remote control drone that ‘delivers payloads’ to ‘waypoints'” gave rise to remote control airplanes flying around college campuses, communicating via wireless, and landing with pinpoint precision in central campus. Lots of fun! But those graduate students went on to work for defense contractors, research led to development, and now we get nasty predator drones pissing off everybody. Wait until you see the basketball-sized UAVs*** that can fly inside buildings (almost sure to show up in the next war). We will even sell these things to other countries. Its big business.

    But, yes Howard I am ignorant. I don’t understand how military people think. And I can’t think like them. I do very clearly understand what the product of military research is, though. New capabilities to make war. Why would I want to be a part of that?

    Sleep well,

    -eric

    *See: http://www.darpa.mil/Our_Work/MTO/Programs/Living_Foundries.aspx
    ** http://www.darpa.mil/our_work/
    *** http://vertol.mit.edu/

  9. Klavins was wondering why this question was asked: “Do you think you could figure out how something that has been broken up into lots of little pieces could be reassembled so we could figure out what it was?”

    It’s because the U.S. has technological superiority over other countries, but if our technology fell into the hands of those countries, they could potentially reverse engineer it and ruin our advantage.

    Thus, it is important to know how well we can self-destruct the technology into tiny pieces so another country could not put it back together again.

    The military often asks questions (“Could you do X?”) without the intent to do X. Why? If we know the feasibility of doing X, BEFORE other countries, then we know if it’s worthwhile to defend against X. This is called preventing technological surprise.

    I am sometimes dismayed by academics who criticize the military without understanding the way they think. It’s ignorance, not righteousness.

  10. Dear Eric,

    I’ve just read your reply and I thank you for taking the time to write it.

    Let me begin by giving my responses to the same questions you’ve pondered:

    Should synthetic biology be used to build explosives from renewable resources?

    No. But not for the reasons you state.

    Explosives are a tool of war. They do not cause war. The decision to kill someone or blow up something with a U.S. bomb is ultimately made by the President of the United States when he sends soldiers, ships, and planes to a combat field. If you don’t like his decision, vote against him. If you think you can make better decisions, run for political office. War is a political act.

    However, let’s perform a risk analysis when using synthetic biology to build greener weapons. Will the bomb be more capable? No. It’s the same explosive. Will the bomb be monetarily cheaper? Perhaps, but the cost of a bomb is dwarfed by other costs during the waging of war. Is there a beneficial side-effect to that R&D? Yes, if you can manufacture a particular chemical explosive, then you will likely find that similar chemicals could also be manufactured — perhaps, chemicals with more humanitarian purposes (like a drug). But that is not the key reason I would say No.

    The key reason why synthetic biology should NOT be used to manufacture explosives is because it will likely give our adversaries the ability to manufacture their OWN explosives from renewable materials. Biology is self-replicating — should someone steal a sample of this amazing bug, they will be able to grow it in large-scale bioreactors and convert simple sugars into weapons of war. Why should the U.S. pay for that particular technology to be developed, given that (a) it confers no military advantage, (b) it does not lower the cost of waging war, and (c) it will likely provide new technological capability to our adversary.

    Your next set of questions raises an important point: if a military agency asks you to answer a question, it’s not because they want you to build a prototype. As an example, let’s say a particular organization did ask you “Could you build a virus that selectively infects Irish people?”. Is it because they want to develop that technology? Or, perhaps, are they asking you because they obtained intelligence that another nation is claiming to build that technology? How can they ascertain the fidelity of that intelligence, or the risk of that nation’s intent, if they do not know the technology’s feasibility? Most intelligence professionals are not experts in biotechnology; they’re asking you as a technical expert. This is another example of pre-supposing the intent of our military.

    Have no fear blogosphere: currently, it is tremendously difficult to develop a virus that selectively killed Irish people. The genetic differences between humans are sufficiently small that finding such differences between one group of people and another AND being able to trigger gene expression changes based solely on those differences would be very difficult. Notably, races, nationality, or other human classification schemes are not very correlated with genetic ancestry. I say “currently”, because the technology does not exist yet and won’t likely exist for the next 10 years. And if it ever existed, its first application would be curing all forms of cancer — you know, those other forms of genetic differences that do a lot more damage than any virus could.

    Onto your next question: a federal agency would never ask you to “make a probiotic that secretes ricin when it senses its host is lactose intolerant?” as it would break U.S. law preventing the development of biological weapons. Perhaps it seems more sensational to imagine conspiracies where secret facilities carry out activities that break U.S. law, but in reality, the U.S military doesn’t want to develop biological weapons because they make terrible weapons of war. (Even if, for some reason, you didn’t like the Irish.)

    In fact, within the announcement of the DARPA program you mentioned — Living Foundries: ATCG — the proposed first application of the technology would be to prevent corrosion. Yes. Corrosion. It’s a $20 billion cost to the Navy alone. Of course, the side effects of the technology will improve the manufacturing of biofuels, drugs, and renewable materials. Is there the potential to also enable bad guys as they develop their dastardly plans in caves that happen to have a Millipore machine? Of course, but in the world of risk analysis, the benefits far out-weigh the chance of bad things happening, even if the technology spreads widely. That’s the mark of a good R&D program, where both the military and society benefit.

    To conclude: I would simply ask that, instead of assuming that all military-sponsored R&D is inherently bad because it may be used to wage war, you should ask whether the technology will help more than it hurts. Will it reduce the deaths of innocent people? Will it decrease the chance of war (via deterrence) or decrease the length of a war? And, most importantly, are there other applications (that having nothing to do with war) that will sufficiently benefit human society that its original intent (war-making) is lost to historical oblivion. *cough* the Internet.

    Thanks,
    Howard

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