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The map of global catastrophic risks connected with biological weapons and genetic engineering

6 Post author: turchin 22 February 2016 11:18AM

TL;DR: Biorisks could result in extinction because of multipandemic in near future and their risks is the same order magnitude as risks of UFAI. A lot of biorisks exist, they are cheap and could happen soon.

It may be surprising that number of published research about risks of biological global catastrophe is much less than number of papers about risks of self-improving AI. (One of exception here is "Strategic terrorism” research parer by former chief technology officer of Microsoft.)

It can’t be explain by the fact that biorisks have smaller probability (it will not be known until Bostrom will write the book “Supervirus”). I mean we don’t know it until a lot of research will be done.

Also biorisks are closer in time than AI risks and because of it they shadow AI risks, lowering the probability that extinction will happen by means of UFAI, because it could happen before it by means of bioweapons (e.g. if UFAI risk is 0.9, but chances that we will die before its creation from bioweapons is 0.8, than actual AI risk is 0.18). So studying biorisks may be more urgent than AI risks. 

There is no technical problem to create new flu virus that could kill large part of human population. And the idea of multi pandemic - that it the possibility to release 100 different agents simultaneously - tells us that biorisk could have arbitrary high global lethality. Most of bad things from this map may be created in next 5-10 years, and no improbable insights are needed. Biorisks are also very cheap in production and small civic or personal biolab could  be used to create them.

May be research in estimation probability of human extinction by biorisks had been done secretly? I am sure that a lot of analysis of biorisks exist in secret. But this means that they do not exist in public and scientists from other domains of knowledge can’t independently verify them and incorporate into broader picture of risks. The secrecy here may be useful if it concerns concrete facts about how to crete a dangerous virus. (I was surprised by effectiveness with which Ebola epidemic was stopped after the decision to do so was made, so maybe I should not underestimate government knowledge on the topic).

I had concerns if I should publish this map. I am not a biologist and chances that I will find really dangerous information are small. But what if I inspire bioterrorists to create bioweapons? Anyway we have a lot of movies with such inspiration. 

So I self-censored one idea that may be too dangerous to publish and put black box instead. I also have a section of prevention methods in the lower part of the map. All ideas in the map may be found in wikipedia or other open sources.

The goal of this map is to show importance of risks connected with new kinds of biological weapons which could be created if all recent advances in bioscience will be used for bad. The map shows what we should be afraid off and try to control. So it is map of possible future development of the field of biorisks.

Not any biocatastrophe will result in extinction, it is in the fat tail of the distribution. But smaller catastrophes may delay other good things and wider our window of vulnerability. If protecting measures will be developed on the same speed as possible risks we are mostly safe. If total morality of bioscientists is high we are most likely safe too - no one will make dangerous experiments.

Timeline: Biorisks are growing at least exponentially with the speed of Moore law in biology. After AI will be created and used to for global government and control, biorisks will probably ended. This means that last years before AI creation will be most dangerous from the point of biorisks. 

The first part of the map presents biological organisms that could be genetically edited for global lethality and each box presents one scenario of a global catastrophe. While many boxes are similar to existing bioweapons, they are not the same as not much known bioweapons could result in large scale pandemic (except smallpox and flu). Most probable biorisks are outlined in red in the map. And the real one will be probably not from the map as the world bio is very large and I can’t cover it all.

The map is provided with links which are clickable in the pdf, which is here: http://immortality-roadmap.com/biorisk.pdf 

Comments (20)

Comment author: Old_Gold 23 February 2016 02:30:12AM 6 points [-]

Anything about adding symptoms to currently harmless bacteria?

Comment author: turchin 23 February 2016 08:44:43AM *  2 points [-]

Will update the map, some information about it is here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3815869/.

Comment author: TRIZ-Ingenieur 24 February 2016 02:26:05PM *  3 points [-]

All risks from existing viral/bacterial sources are proven to be of non-existential risk to humanity. If the mortality rate is close to 100% the expansion is slowed down by killing potential disease distributors. In addition global measures will prevent mass spreading.

Regarding human/AI designed bio weapons: The longer the incubation period the more dangerous a bio-weapon will be. To extinguish the entire human race the incubation time has to be in the range of years together with an almost 100% successful termination functionality. From observation of the very first deaths to finding cure may get faster than with HIV for two reasons: Technology is more advanced now, and facing extinction the humans will put all available energy into cure.

What remains is a Trojan horse infection that is waiting for a trigger. If 100% of humans are infected the trigger molecule could be spread into the stratosphere. This could be it for us.

Comment author: turchin 24 February 2016 02:40:19PM 1 point [-]

Ok, lets me be a devil advocate. The map is about future possible biowepaons created using genetic engineering, not exiting.

Lets imagine that a rogue country created 100 different pathogens with 50 per cent lethality each which seems to be possible with current technologies. These pathogens include different variants of flu, smallpox, anthrax and so on, total 100 species.

Than the rogue country send 200 letters with mixture of all these pathogens in each large city in world.

In result there will be multipandemic with mortality 1- (0.5 power 100) = 0,99999... Such multipandemic would wipe out most of humanity and survivors will die of starvation.

By playing with incubation periods and different environment carriers, as well as adding artificial fungi infections which are known to wipe out species, this rogue country could make such multipandemic very difficult to stop. The map include many more ideas how make such multipandemic even stronger. All these means that we should take such possibility seriously and invest in its prevention.

Comment author: The_Jaded_One 14 April 2017 09:06:13PM 1 point [-]

AFAIK Anthrax is not human transmissible. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthrax

In result there will be multipandemic with mortality 1- (0.5 power 100) = 0,99999

I don't think that's what would actually happen. Most likely, there would be a distribution over transmission rates. Some of your pathogens would be more infectious then others. The most infectious one or two of them would quickly outpace the transmission of all the others. It would be extremely hard to balance them so that they all had the same transmission rate.

The slower ones could be stranded by the deaths and precautions caused by the faster ones.

Comment author: turchin 15 April 2017 11:17:12AM 1 point [-]

I oversimplified to illustrate the idea of the multipandemic - that is many pandemics could happen simultaneously, either deliberately or because of explosion of bad biohacking, like it happened with computer viruses. Many pandemic will interact non-lineary, competing for dissemination ways, but their interaction could make also situation worse, as they could potentiate one another.

Anthrax probably could be made human transmittable by means of genetic manipulation.

I wrote long article about it, now under send it to Risk Analysis

Comment author: The_Jaded_One 16 April 2017 10:25:15PM 0 points [-]

But then why have we not seen a multipandemic of computer viruses?

Mostly (I assert) because the existence of an epidemic of virus A doesn't​ (on net) help virus B to spread.

Parasites which parasitize the same host tend to be in competition with each other (in fact as far as I am aware sophisticated malware today even contains antivirus code to clean out other infections); this is especially true if the parasites kill hosts.

I think a multipandemic is an interesting idea, though, and worthy of further investigation 👍

Comment author: turchin 17 April 2017 08:07:09AM 0 points [-]

I think that there are a multipandemic of computer viruses, but most of them now are malware which is not destroying data, and they are in balance with antivirus systems. However in early 1990s loosing data because of virus was common, and any computer user has experienced computer virus infection at least once.

"Nearly 1 million new malware threats released every day" http://money.cnn.com/2015/04/14/technology/security/cyber-attack-hacks-security/

Comment author: The_Jaded_One 18 April 2017 05:25:27PM 0 points [-]

I think that there are a multipandemic of computer viruses, but most of them now are malware which is not destroying data, and they are in balance with antivirus systems.

Well............ I don't know about this. If it's "in balance" and not actually destroying the hosts then it's not really a pandemic in the sense that you were using above. (Where it kills 99.999% of hosts!)

Comment author: turchin 18 April 2017 07:59:51PM 0 points [-]

There is a difference. We can reboot a computer, or reinstall an OS, but for a human it will be permanent damage or death.

Comment author: Vaniver 24 February 2016 03:03:01PM 1 point [-]

In result there will be multipandemic with mortality 1- (0.5 power 100) = 0,99999... Such multipandemic would wipe out most of humanity and survivors will die of starvation.

Surely the survival chance against multiple diseases won't be independent? It's suspected Europeans are more likely to be HIV-resistant than non-Europeans because of repeated epidemic-caused culls. (One description.)

Comment author: turchin 24 February 2016 03:29:56PM 0 points [-]

While it will not be independent, such dependency could be estimated statistically or using complex math model. If it will done statistically I guess it will result in that total mortality will be 0.25 from each specie, but given large enough number of different pathogens the result of multiplication will be the same - total extinction. Some humans could be resistant to some species of microbes, but no one will be resistant to all species.

If attacker will be sophisticated enough, he may calculate how different stains will combine. Quick ones will result in panic and people movement and help to disseminate the slower ones. Some of them may be asymptomatic but carry HIV genes. Some may live in environment for decades. Some may infect food with poisonous fungi.

Multipandemic may also result accidentally if many "bad" biohackers will get "bioprinters" in their hands almost simultaneously, as a result of tech progress. In this case it will be milder, but almost unstoppable. Millions of computer viruses are written each year and the same could happen with bio viruses.

We should also add that genetic diversity of humanity is very small because it passed through bottle neck 70 000 ago. Chimps are much more diverse

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 27 February 2016 04:36:59PM 0 points [-]

Such multipandemic would wipe out most of humanity and survivors will die of starvation.

The survivors will not all die of starvation-- there will be stored food, and there are people who know how to do low and moderate tech agriculture, not to mention hunting and gathering.

I think you've talking about something that will end most of our civilization, not the human race.

Comment author: turchin 27 February 2016 06:34:54PM 0 points [-]

If all fields will be covered with anthrax and botulism producing environmental organisms, agriculture will not be possible... By remote groups of people I meant people in Antarctica Polar station or undocked ships. The final result will depend of ability of dangerous agent to cover large distances by air. (birds could do it and they are transmitting birds flu).

Comment author: Curiouskid 22 February 2016 10:58:46PM 2 points [-]

I really like your knowledge maps.

I found a small typo: "Luck of ability to see consequences". I think you meant "lack".

Comment author: turchin 22 February 2016 11:06:05PM *  2 points [-]

Thanks, fixed in pdf. Also I just found interesting article "The future of biological warfare" http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3815869/ which highlights risks of environment microbes and especially fungi. What it means is that doomsday bioweapon is now 10 times more probable by my estimate.

Comment author: AABoyles 22 February 2016 02:13:10PM 2 points [-]

The link to the "Strategic Terrorism" paper is malformed. The correct URL is here.

Comment author: turchin 22 February 2016 07:22:25PM 2 points [-]

Updated, thanks

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 27 February 2016 05:09:24PM 0 points [-]

The universal vaccine link is just about a universal flu vaccine-- I can't imagine that a universal vaccine against all possible bio-attacks is feasible.

Have a scenario-- a government prepares a bioweapon, and includes the vaccine against it in the usual mix of vaccines, then releases the bioweapon. I bet no one is checking on the possibility of extra vaccines.

What I'm taking away is that a big (a least a billion people dead) bioweapon attack isn't a near future threat. Biology is just too hard. People would need a drastically better understanding of biology to engineer an effective threat-- and it wouldn't just take better computation, I'm betting it would take new mathematics.

Governments are a bigger threat than terrorist groups, but aren't they always?

Comment author: turchin 27 February 2016 06:46:35PM 0 points [-]

One of example of against-all viruses approach is Draco https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DRACO_(antiviral) I read about universal vaccines before but all search result spoiled by universal flu vaccines.

Your scenario may happen, but as many parents refuses vaccination of children, it would show up.

The idea of the map is exactly opposite: to kill half of humanity one need 5 changes in only 2 genes in the bird flu and it is very simple technically. The only thing on which we may try to hope is morality of scientists.

"Of the 573 people that have caught the bug so far worldwide, 336 have died. However, the germ’s inability to spread easily from person to person means the predicted pandemic has never materialised. Now, scientists at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam have created a H5N1 bird flu that spreads as easily as winter flu. In experiments on ferrets – whose flu symptoms are most like humans’ – just five mutations in two key genes turned the ‘normal’ bird flu into a highly contagious, super-spreader."

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2077232/Scientist-deliberately-created-Armageddon-bird-flu-virus-lab-says-publish-details.html#ixzz41OaI2YKD