Bebergian Scenario

Eugen Leitl eugen@leitl.org
Tue, 18 Mar 2003 21:09:25 +0100 (CET)


On Tue, 18 Mar 2003, Russell Turpin wrote:

> That misses an important requirement to be a true
> weapon: (4) treatment, remedy, or vaccine for the
> side that deploys it.

It doesn't. The whole point of self-amplification is that it's a gift that
keeps on giving. While -- currently -- prohibitively costly to develop the
deployment is trivially easy -- a few frequent-flying businesspersons
would do. A population of agents stochastically sampling behaviour space
will eventually find the big red button and push it.

Evolutionary we're programmed to hurt back when you're attacked. So it's 
even rational; from a tit for tat selfish gene strategy. Apoptosis is okay 
if you're an organism, it sure sucks if you're a cell.

> Killing off a random fraction of the world's
> population is not, in itself, a potent military
> tactic. A quarter of the enemy is dead? So what?

I never claimed it's a military tactic. It's just about killing people.

> So is a quarter of your own population. That's

I am a single individual, or a small group. I have no population.

> That, really, is the thing about most existing
> infectious organisms: they're already out there.

The specific scenario I described is most assuredly not there. In fact
there might be a single potential pathogen combining the salient
characteristics of a common cold and HIV lurking in some biodiversity pool
just about to be drained, but I'm not holding my breath (cough, cough,
wheeze).

> The evil terrorist can breed a more virulent
> strain, or deliver it to where it hasn't been
> for a while. But unless there is a qualitative
> change in the nature of the pathogen, it will
> resume its native pattern, occupying the niches
> to which it has adapted. Until biologists get to

HIV was not adapted to people. You'd be most likely dead or dying right
now if it spread via aerosol infection as easily as common cold. It would 
cull 50-80% of the entire world population before it had a chance to 
adapt.

> the point where they create truly new kinds of
> pathogen, that tends to limit the risk from
> bioweaponry. We are suriving the worst that

Yes, I explicitly mentioned a family of unrelated engineered pathogens
released synchronously. There was a reason for that. No one can win all
ten rounds of molecular diversity russian roulette, played simultaneously.  
The only way to win is not to play.

> evolution can throw against us! Three cheers for
> humanity and our immune system.

Four cheers about having been lucky, rather.
 
> The exception is smallpox, which we have
> eliminated in the wild. I have no doubt that
> tens or hundreds of millions of people would die
> if a smallpox epidemic were started. And that IS

I doubt it. The models indicate modern urban societies would not be hit 
hard. It sure could be a scourge elsewhere.

> within the bounds of current technology, even
> without preserved samples. But where would be
> the benefit to a bin Laden from doing this? The
> third world would suffer the brunt of the epidemic.
> Even if the plague is started in New York, Chicago,
> and San Francisco, it would rapidly spread. The
> western world, which is richer, better nourished,
> and has more rapid medical response, would not
> suffer nearly as much as Africa, South Asia, and
> the Middle East.
> 
> Now yeah, I know: madmen aren't rational. Manmen
> who think they know the mind of God might believe
> He intends them to start a worldwide plague. It's

Bush said that God is taking sides in a conflict on TV, with a gleaming
beady eye. Judging from his Science policy it seems that his mind is quite
fried on God.

Sure, he is rational.

> not the believer who prays you have to watch, but
> the one who listens to the response. But that
> kind of doomsday scenario is more Bebergian than
> it is a plausible result of the coming war.

What makes you think I was talking about any war? I was describing a 
specific kill mechanism. If you're feeling bored you can run a probability 
estimate.