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Richard Posner is an influential legal theorist and author and currently a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Posner attended Yale as an undergraduate,[…]

Judge Posner talks about why he is pessimistic about destructive technologies that continue to be developed.

Well I’m rather pessimistic; but I think optimism and pessimism, I think, have a strong psychological component. No one really knows, but at the moment it looks as if the destructive technologies are advancing more rapidly than the constructive. One of the destructive technologies, of course, is burning of fossil fuels. That’s what’s producing global warming. It’s not a new technology obviously; but what’s new about it is that other new technologies are enabling tremendous economic growth in what we used to call the third world. That tremendous economic growth is contributing to tremendous increase in the amount of fossil fuel burning, which is creating global warming and reduction in species diversity and so on. So that’s very bad.

And these more overtly destructive technologies like nuclear – which is spreading obviously, proliferating – and biological. And there hasn’t been too much talking about that recently. But in my book and subsequent thinking, the advances in biotechnology are creating extraordinary weapon opportunities.

So within a few years, it will be possible to synthesize the smallpox virus, which is the ideal terror weapon. And once it’s synthesized, the opportunities for actually weaponizing it become very great because there’s a huge international biotechnology industry.

It’s not just the United States or in the developed world. Brazil, for example, has a huge biotech industry. So with many thousands of skilled biologists and bio technicians all over the world, the opportunity for the smallpox to get into the hands of some lunatic or some sort of silent terrorist group I think are great and growing. And just proliferation of antibiotics which speed the evolution of bacteria and viruses, right? They respond, so, to the challenge. So you get emergence of more dangerous bacteria, but naturally selected to be immune to the antibiotic.

So all sorts of dangers lurk, and many people are looking to try to contain them. But if you think of the spread of biological knowledge and no one is trying to control that, right?

There is government-funded research on trying to develop new broad-spectrum vaccines and so on, trying to anticipate other epidemics either naturally caused or man-caused and try to have.

But you know that’s a real catch up kind of thing trying to anticipate all the possible lethal pathogens and developing vaccines against them. An example of how serious the problem is to develop a vaccine against a potential bio weapon, you have to develop the bio weapon as you make vaccines. So then you’re training all sorts of scientists on how to make a bio weapon. Some of them may turn out to be a biological unibomber. And biological weaponry is much cheaper to create, much easier to create than nuclear. I mean there are no nuclear secrets anymore, but there’s no trick to designing the atomic bomb.

But the actual bottleneck is the enriched uranium or plutonium. That’s still difficult to come by. But you don’t have that kind of bottleneck in the biological area.


Recorded on: Nov 21, 2009.