Smart bacteria, evil yogurt, and the end of security

Every once in a while, the Internets lead you to some nugget of what-the-bloody-hell... Ian Pearson is a futurologist for British Telecom, and here is a snippet -- okay, a long stretch -- from an interview he did last week with a Welsh technology news site I just stumbled across (sweet dreams!):

There's another one - the security threat from hell. Think of the Terminator movies. The technology of that is pretty much obsolete by the time we get to 2020, a prototype of the T-2 liquid metal robot has already been done, and with nanotechnology is will be possible to make that work. That's not the problem to worry about.

DNA is already being used in a test tube to assemble macro electronic circuits - basically shove in a suspension of carbon nano tubes and gold particles, stir in some DNA. You can persuade the DNA to assemble the gold particles onto the end of the carbon nano tubes and make simple circuits. That was demonstrated about two years ago, and the company has gone secret since, as they are now working on developing more sophisticated circuits. The idea is that you do bottom up assembly which is the next generation of chip assembly by using DNA and protein clusters to basically grab the stuff and stick it together using clever chemistry. The key point is that you can do this with DNA.

We were thinking, one of the good ways of doing this is spending billions of pounds for a real live bacterium - e-coli, or something you find in yoghurt - and you don't modify it so much that it can't survive because you want it to replicate, but you modify it so that it creates electronic circuits within its' own cells. That's really good fun then, because you've got electronic bacteria - real live bacterium which can replicate with electronics in it. The electronics have nothing to do with the bacteria, they are just there, but they turn it into "smart bacteria", because you can then connect those electronics together using infrared or bioluminescence and make completely scalable electronic circuits. So you start off with one bacterium, which is essentially a module, and you link billions of these together and you've got something that makes your PC look pretty primitive. You've got a "smart yoghurt" by about 2025, and we did the calculations, and we reckon that it's possible to make a yoghurt with roughly the same processing power as the entire European population.

It gets worse. If it's yoghurt, you can just bung it in the bin, but unfortunately yoghurt is just the bacterial suspension. Bacteria is all around us, in everything we touch, everywhere you look around your office. There's also bacteria in your body - in fact more bacterial cells than human cells - and an awful lot of diseases can change your psychological behaviour.

Keeping the Terminator theme, the T-4 robot is totally invisible - it's based on bacteria - you breathe them in via the air supply and they directly change what you want to do. You can't fight against that. In the War of the Worlds, there were all these sophisticated space ships that got destroyed by the germs in the end - that could be the future for humanity. In all seriousness, one of the biggest threats we face this century is probably smart bacteria, and as a security risk it's enormous.

At the moment we're relying on encryption and firewalls and other security measures to stop people stealing your passwords. In the future, all I have to do is let some bacteria into your building; they float through the air conditioning system, land on your keyboard, you can't see them, you don't know they are there. They record every single keystroke and report it back to me. As if that's not enough, they could also be listening to what you're talking about, and even directly interface with your brain if necessary, and they can certainly float in through the vents on your PC and access the chips.

So how do you manage security in that sort of a world? I would say that there will not be any security from 2025 onwards, because I do not see how you could possibly do it. You just can't get rid of the bacteria - you could use bacterial filters in the air supply, but you can't afford to do that for every single bit of air everywhere in the entire country. We don't even have the beginnings of understanding how to deal with that kind of threat, and yet that threat could happen in as little as twenty years time.

There will of course be a lot of technological developments in that time, but the fact is, you can imagine some smart scientist in a rogue regime developing this as a terrorist weapon, and you can certainly imagine people doing this deliberately so that we've got an almost infinite supply of computing on demand for perfectly benign purposes, and then unfortunately it goes wrong. Essentially it's a major security threat - smart bacteria is one of the ways you could wipe out humanity, and it's an extinction level threat if it goes wrong. It's just one of the things on a list we've got of things based on technology that could wipe out humanity. It's the T-4 robot essentially, and we know people are working in that direction now.


Trevor Jackson said...

There comes a point when reading these sorts of fascinating, relatively plausible, and utterly disconcerting prophecies where you experience one of two responses:

1) Seriously consider learning self-reliance skills and start a savings account for the island you'll move you and yours to.

2) Shrug and say, "This is why I smoke cigarettes."

traca de broon said...

Makes me want to move to an island and smoke cigarettes, but so does everything.