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Downloadable Gun Parts, Personalized Bioterror: the Downside of Innovation

April 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Through innovation and technology, California think tank Singularity University aims to push the frontiers of progress. But what happens when high-tech advances end up in the wrong hands? Economics correspondent Paul Solman raises some disturbing questions as part of his ongoing reporting series, Making Sen$e of financial news.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now part two in our series on using technology to make the world a better place.

That’s the goal of Singularity University, a futuristic think tank in California.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman recently attended a conference there and reported on some of the mind-bending research being explored.

Tonight, Paul looks at the downside of the high-tech revolution. It’s part of ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: At a recent conference filled with the wonders of new technology, one presenter’s vision of the future was downright frightening.

MARC GOODMAN, Singularity University: There are two million unique computer viruses that are generated every month.

Today, we say 'there's an app for that.' Now imagine if these were viruses each made for an individual cancer, and they were available for free or 99 cents. That's where we're going.Andrew Hessel, Singularity University

PAUL SOLMAN: Marc Goodman is a former cop who ran the Los Angeles Police Department’s Internet Crimes Unit.

MARC GOODMAN: Never before in the history of humankind has it been possible for one person to rob 100 million people.

PAUL SOLMAN: Nor has it been possible, says Goodman, for anyone to hack into personal medical devices, like pacemakers or insulin pumps connected to the Internet.

MARC GOODMAN: The thing that scares me the most after cyber-crime is bio-crime. We’re putting all these little computers in our bodies. And what that means is, our bodies themselves are going to become vulnerable to cyber-attack.

PAUL SOLMAN: A high-level consultant to the U.S. government and Interpol, Goodman is the faculty skeptic at Singularity University, the futuristic California think tank, who rains on his colleagues’ utopian parade of innovation. To him, high-octane high tech is a double-edged sword.

MARC GOODMAN: I think all of this technology will develop in really cool and interesting ways. But I can tell you, at the same time, there are bad actors from both the crime and the terrorism perspective that are using these technologies for ill.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, there’s already plenty of bad stuff, says Goodman, like all those computer viruses. But today’s hackers are becoming increasingly daring.

MARC GOODMAN: The bad guys live inside your machine. They watch everything you do. Any time you type in your bank account or credit card information on to the machine, they’re capturing it. They’re capturing your passwords.

PAUL SOLMAN: Moreover, computers are becoming increasingly embedded in the hardware around us. The typical new car, says Goodman, has 250 computer chips. And in this Google prototype now legally riding the roads of Nevada, even the driving is fully computerized.

MARC GOODMAN: So, you could put in bad GPS directions and have a car drive off a bridge. Every day, we’re plugging more and more of our lives into the Internet, including bridges, tunnels, financial systems, hospitals, police emergency dispatch 911 systems, military systems, robotics systems. And there’s a history of all of these being hacked.

PAUL SOLMAN: The Stuxnet computer worm that disabled Iran’s nuclear program made headlines, but smaller targets are also vulnerable.

MARC GOODMAN: Diabetic pumps, cochlear implants, brain computer interface. There are 60,000 pacemakers in the United States that connect to the Internet, which means that the Internet connects to your pacemaker. It’s great when you’re suffering from an arrhythmia and your doctor can remotely shock you, but what happens if the kid next door does that because it’s fun and does it for the lulz.

PAUL SOLMAN: You mean LOL, laughing out loud?

MARC GOODMAN: Yeah. It sounds crazy, but we have had people hack into, for example, the Epilepsy Foundation and change the computer code on the screen, so it would blink really rapidly, so that they would generate seizures on the part of epileptics, that type of stuff.

PAUL SOLMAN: Somebody actually did that?

MARC GOODMAN: Somebody actually did that for what they call the lulz, for the fun of it, for the laughs to see if they could do it.

PAUL SOLMAN: For almost every upside, a downside. Consider 3-D printing, a new way of manufacturing, layer by layer, everything from art to artificial organs. This is a 3-D printed model for a prosthetic leg.

MARC GOODMAN: This is the lower receiver of an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. It’s the only part of the gun that is controlled by ATF. All the other parts, you can just buy. This is available for free download on something called Thingiverse.

PAUL SOLMAN: And there’s simply no way for the federal authorities to trace it.

Again, the sword of technology cuts both ways. Marc Goodman’s colleagues at the conference, like Andrew Hessel, extolled biology’s coming ability to concoct cures for everything from the common cold to cancer, cures downloadable as easily as the latest iPhone version of “Angry Birds.”

ANDREW HESSEL, Singularity University: Today, we say there’s an app for that. Now imagine if these were viruses each made for an individual cancer, and they were available for free or 99 cents. That’s where we’re going.

PAUL SOLMAN: The first step in that process may well be Synthia, the first synthetic life-form created two years ago by Craig Venter.

CRAIG VENTER, CEO, Synthetic Genomics: This is a picture of the very first synthetic cell, based entirely on synthetic DNA.

PAUL SOLMAN: For Venter, cracker of the human genome code, exponential growth in computing is speeding up progress exponentially.

CRAIG VENTER: Biology has always been controlled in science by who had the DNA, who had the cells, who had the species. Now it’s all digital. Most labs, instead of getting the DNA from another lab, download it digitally, and synthetically make the genes.

PAUL SOLMAN: And prices have plunged.

By the way, what is that moving there?

MAN: Oh, these are some harmless bacteria that somebody’s growing for a project.

PAUL SOLMAN: Lab equipment is cheaper, too. This CO2 incubator for maintaining tissue cultures costs $15,000 brand-new.

Oh, little petri dishes.

MAN: Little petri dishes, yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: But bought used on eBay?

MAN: It was definitely well under $1,000.

PAUL SOLMAN: Put simply, basic genetic engineering is now within reach of do-it-yourself amateurs.

ELLEN JORGENSEN, co-Founder, Genspace: The experiments that were Nobel Prize-winning in the 1970s are now done in high schools.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ph.D. biologists Ellen Jorgensen and Oliver Medvedik helped found Genspace, a DIY lab in downtown Brooklyn which draws would-be genetic engineers from all walks of life, like lawyer Dan Orr, who says he found his previous line of work unfulfilling.

MAN: I was working mainly helping large banks fix their foreclosure programs.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, unfulfilling doesn’t quite do justice to your discomfort.

MAN: Probably not. I felt it would be better to work in something that was better both for myself and for society.

PAUL SOLMAN: So Orr is now genetically altering bacteria to detect mold. They will glow when they sense it. It makes his teacher, Ellen Jorgensen, proud.

ELLEN JORGENSEN: You just can’t really predict what where the imagination of somebody creative will lead them, in terms of solving a problem that’s societal or scientific or environmental.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or maybe creating problems, says Marc Goodman, if the bio-hacker is so inclined.

MARC GOODMAN: As it becomes democratized, I can go ahead and capture your DNA and come up with a particular attack that’s targeted against you specifically.

PAUL SOLMAN: And all you have to do is shake my hand or something to get some DNA.

MARC GOODMAN: And I would have to do is shake your hand, get the coke can that you throw away, get the pen that you signed something with.

PAUL SOLMAN: And then cook up the Paul Solman virus — one and done.

Indeed, Craig Venter told the conference he himself is worried about off-the-shelf biotech.

CRAIG VENTER: While I think it’s very cool at one hand we have all this bio-hacking going on, I think it could also be the most dangerous trend. You don’t want your kids to be the first one on the block to make Ebola virus.

PAUL SOLMAN: So how does Craig Venter respond to the charge that in making life-forms from scratch, it is he who’s created a monster?

CRAIG VENTER: What we’ve stressed from the beginning is having biological control on these systems is an essential part of things. We don’t want new organisms to be added to the environment’s repertoire. We want it to be added to our industrial repertoire.

PAUL SOLMAN: But aren’t you afraid some of this life could creep out of the lab?

CRAIG VENTER: I’m not afraid, no. If things are done properly, that won’t happen.

PAUL SOLMAN: But a lot of things are done improperly.

CRAIG VENTER: Well, they’re not actually. There’s not been one single accident from molecular biology in almost four decades.

PAUL SOLMAN: But Venter is not naive.

CRAIG VENTER: Every time there’s a new technology, there’s always abusers. There’s no question about it. And every new technology has been a battle between making sure there’s adequate countermeasures for those that want to do harm to others.

PAUL SOLMAN: Genspace’s Ellen Jorgensen agrees.

ELLEN JORGENSEN: I think what you have to place your faith in to a certain degree is the people whose business it is to ensure that we’re safe.

So the bio-security experts, the people who work for Homeland Security, the people that work for the FBI, I’ve worked with a lot of these people and I have a great deal of respect for them. And I think that that’s probably our best defense against this sort of stuff, because any technology is going to have dual use. You can think of dual use for practically any technology that’s ever been invented.

PAUL SOLMAN: Dual use meaning bad and good?

ELLEN JORGENSEN: Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, if it’s a cat and mouse game, and the cat is the law enforcement and the mice are the bad guys, who’s going to win?

MARC GOODMAN: Who will win eventually is unclear. I can tell you the mice are really far ahead right now. They’re significantly ahead. Criminal perpetrators are significantly outmaneuvering and out-thinking law enforcement.

ELLEN JORGENSEN: Oh, I think that’s nonsense. You’re telling me that there’s a bad guy out there that has more resources than Craig Venter? I highly doubt that.

PAUL SOLMAN: On the other hand, if some group is dead-set on doing harm, they may not need more resources than Craig Venter, as technology continues to progress at its breakneck, exponential pace.