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comment by shminux · 2014-12-08T07:46:26.496Z · score: 6 (12 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that this is an appropriate public forum for such a discussion. I hope this post gets deleted.

comment by skeptical_lurker · 2014-12-08T09:34:45.594Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

IIRC genetically engineered bioweapons are constantly ranked as one of the most plausible catastrophic risks, which does seem to make this an interest of LW.

comment by Alsadius · 2014-12-08T20:46:17.660Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Why would engineering be better at producing virulent diseases than nature? Effective contagion is already strongly selected for without our help.

comment by gwern · 2014-12-08T20:59:57.372Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Effective contagion is already strongly selected for without our help.

No. What's selected for is reproductive fitness, not contagion. Contagion is often, but not always, fit.

To what extent, and how much, is debated but the optimal virulence is not going to be 100% fatality rates; there can be cases where that happens (a new mutation accidentally makes it too virulent and the hosts are wiped out or shrunk to a nonviable population before it can evolve to something nicer, or it crosses into a new species where its carefully modulated virulence turns out to be ultra-virulent, like invasive species suddenly arriving at an isolated island) but that is not selected for. (For an interesting discussion on virulence and immune systems, see "The Acquired Immune System: A Vantage from Beneath", Hedrick 2004 (excerpts).)

So, you can't make a strong evolutionary argument that pandemics must be very difficult to engineer.

comment by faul_sname · 2014-12-08T21:25:18.691Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not going to go into the full details on how one would do this, but using resources which an average undergraduate biology student has, it would be fairly trivial to culture up a strain of pretty much any BSL-2 pathogen (Mycobacterium tuberculosis is one example), which said undergrad would have easy access to, which is resistant to all antibiotics you throw at it (12 of them in the class I took this semester, which include vancomycin, tetracycline, and several other "last resort" antibiotics). Materials would be quite inexpensive, and incubators can be made cheaply from common household items.

In this case, you're not selecting for transmissibility. You're selecting for difficulty of treatment. Several other techniques accessible to undergrads could be used to make this cultured organism even more dangerous, but unlike the techniques discussed in the above paragraph above, they are sufficiently non-obvious that putting them on a public forum might actually give bad actors useful ideas.

The difficult part of engineering a targeted pandemic is not the "pandemic" part, it's the "targeted" part.

comment by skeptical_lurker · 2014-12-08T20:53:30.651Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, this isn't my field, but there are genetically engineered crops so it seems like engineering can beat nature in some conditions. Perhaps there are parts of the fitness landscape evolution will not reach due to requiring jumps rather than incremental change?

But this is a good question, and I'd like to see an answer from a biologist who knows what they're talking about, as opposed to my wild guessing.

comment by Dagon · 2014-12-08T09:11:29.818Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know about appropriate, but I don't think it's a useful question.

It's a nice specific risk to consider (especially when you add the risk of mutation or error that changes the target to "earth life", but there's not enough thought put into the post to really get a discussion started.

comment by RowanE · 2014-12-08T11:50:56.763Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I can already see the LessWrong haters deciding any discussion we have here is the NRx community actually planning to commit an actual genocide.

comment by ZankerH · 2014-12-08T20:36:36.073Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW


comment by ChristianKl · 2014-12-08T14:43:37.819Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm looking for someone with some expertise to answer this question.


comment by Emile · 2014-12-08T14:37:49.382Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's the kind of knowledge humanity is better off not having.

comment by gwern · 2014-12-08T16:07:28.759Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Populations share many genes but often have them in different proportions so theoretically you may get something that kills 90% of group A and 10% of group B? Is it possible to avoid this?

Sure; population genetics can already sort people into relevant ethnic groups with ~100% accuracy with a few hundred markers. While the differing proportions mean that it's not as simple as a few boolean switches ANDed together, I think it's doable as a weighted sum: each variant gets a score, sum them all, and take action or not when the sum passes over a threshold.

Ethnic bioweapons seem entirely possible to me, but it's hard to see why anyone would want to use them rather than existing weapons like nukes or armies or terror.

comment by DanielLC · 2014-12-08T19:49:48.692Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But you have to make it check for a few hundred markers, do some kind of weighted sum, and do it all in a way that is so intrinsic to the virus that any mutation that changes the way it works renders the virus inert.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2014-12-08T19:27:53.967Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think there are people who have race as a major issue.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2014-12-08T14:51:04.189Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think the technology for such a weapon is sufficiently far in the future that there's no direct harm in discussing the question, though I suppose there's a reputational risk for LW. I don't have a serious timeline for when such a weapon, even of the sketchiest sort, would be possible, but I'd be really surprised if took less than 20 years.

I'm imagining that the weapon would identify several genes related to appearance (since that is what people mostly seem to care about, though some racists also care about ancestry) and have a cumulative effect based on the number of target genes.

Any thoughts about what defense against such a weapon would look like?

comment by ZankerH · 2014-12-08T20:41:29.597Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Any thoughts about what defense against such a weapon would look like?

Culturally: Get the establishment to stop pretending there is no such thing as race and that there are no instrumental difference between ethnicities. Most modern "racism" seems to me to stem from the fact that the western establishment (academia/media/the political class) seem to be actively living in denial on HBD, and for some people it's a natural step from swallowing the red pill to "they're lying about everything, gas the X, race war now!".

Stop the systematic denial of HBD and start treating people like grown-ups who are capable of living with "politically incorrect" knowledge in their lives, and most of the reasons to actively be "racist" as defined by the cultural-marxist outrage just go away.