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Creative Destruction: The Birth of the Computer and the Hydrogen Bomb

You cannot prevent weapons by preventing technologies. We just have to use them carefully, particularly the power of genetics. 

The first successful hydrogen bomb was built in 1952. But really we stated building them in quantity in 1953. And also, in 1953, Watson and Crick and Rosalind Franklin — who gets left out a little too often — they determined the structure of DNA.  And the fact that those two things happened in the same year is pretty much a coincidence. They were not related.  

But they both, independently, had a tremendous amount to do with computing and the world we live in today, in which computers actually read and write sequences of code from electronic memory directly into sequences of nucleotides. That is a world that could only be imagined.  It was almost unimaginably farfetched in 1953. And yet, here we are.

In a way, things turned out better than anybody expected. At that time, it’s hard to even imagine how bad things looked. It really looked like we might have global thermonuclear war and lose three-quarters of the population of people on Earth or something terrible like that. And that hasn’t happened.  We’ve had a lot of terrible wars, but we have not had global nuclear war.

Then, on the other hand, we’ve had these incredibly favorable developments, and who would have imagined you could sequence the genetic sequences of a human being for a thousand dollars, sort of as a consumer-level technology? Those are two amazing things that are related in a very interesting way.

A knife can be a tool for good or it can be a weapon, and that actually is true of everything. You cannot prevent weapons by preventing technologies. We just have to use them carefully, particularly the power of genetics. Being able to write genetic sequences could be the most terrible weapon in the world.  

Genocide is sort of our worst crime, and it is entirely feasible to create biological weapons that only target certain ethnic groups. That’s not science fiction. That’s real. And it’s our job to make sure that kind of thing doesn’t happen. And the same thing goes for information technology. It can be a weapon for affecting or changing the way people think or selecting against people who think certain ways, and those are very threatening things. But the same tools can be tools for education. So our job is to remember every generation where things can go wrong and try to avoid that.  


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