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June 27, 2005

Biological Viruses Spread by Computer Viruses?

Drew Endy of the MIT Biological Engineering Division gave a great keynote address at GECCO 2005 today describing the work he and his team are doing. Instead of attempting to summarize the talk here, I encourage you to check out his web site to find out more about what he is doing.

In the tail end of his talk, Professor Endy discussed some of the risks of biological engineering, including the risk of lone "garage bio-hackers" engineering harmful biological substances and unleashing them on the world. As he acknowledged, this risk is not new but may be exacerbated by improvements in biological engineering.

One limitation on the risk posed by biological materials is that the harm they can cause is limited in geographic scope. Airborne anthrax can only travel so far. A computer virus, in contrast, can travel worldwide almost instantly. If (as Professor Endy described earlier in his talk) it becomes increasingly possible to engineer biological systems using abstractions that are decoupled from the underlying biological substrate, one can imagine designing a biological ("real") virus by writing a computer program. Couple this with desktop biological manufacturing and virtual "teleportion" (see my next post) and we could see the spread of biological viruses using computer viruses. The previous sentence is complete science fiction, but still interesting to ponder.

Posted by Robert at June 27, 2005 9:22 PM
category: Design & Engineering | Ethics

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