APL Forum: Biotechnology for the Nation – BioTech: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly


It’s very difficult to know how to
introduce someone as accomplished as Admiral Jim Stavridis and I’m sure
with somebody this well-known you were all eager to hear him speak so I will
try to be brief Admiral stavridis retired as a four-star Admiral in the
Navy where he kept near his nearly four decades of service as head of US
European Command a post duel had it as supreme Allied commander Europe
responsible for NATO forces on the continent and in operations as far away
as Afghanistan he’s done everything from command ships at sea lead strategic
planning in the Pentagon to leading the u.s. Southern Command responsible for
all operations in Latin and South America but besides being a decorated
military officer he’s also a scholar with a PhD in international relations
from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Institution where he later
served a five-year term as Dean and currently I’m very pleased to say he is
a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory so please
join me in a big welcome for Admiral stavridis thanks well what a pleasure to
be with everybody today to talk about biology I’m not a biologist I do have
two son in-laws who are physicians so I’m learning more about biology every
day but I I want to bring to the conversation sort of the big picture the
strategic framework and a little bit about what I think we can do to enhance
the quality of these kind of conversations and I’m going to kind of
pick a couple of ways to do that I’m gonna start with a movie which is the
good the bad and the ugly and I’m going to use a dozen novels as we go along
here to help us imagine more about this zone because I think what happens in
laboratories is crucial and important but at the end of the day how we use
what comes out of those laboratories is the essence of using and discovering
whether this is good bad or ugly so let’s kind of go through that
a little bit how many people here have actually seen the movie the good the bad
and the ugly besides Bob work okay that’s actually a pretty good number
this movie was made in 1966 and of course it starred the very young Clint
Eastwood he played the good so I’m gonna start with some things that are I think
good as it says the good kind of so let’s take three stories that I think
illustrate three kinds of points about what might be termed human performance
enhancement one of these is very well known everyone here I’m sure has read
brave new world and you’ll recall that this is a story of a society that uses
genetic engineering to create a caste system and by the end of it this society
is in collision with those who have lived outside of this brave new world
so human performance enhancement in brave new world is at the top line it’s
about making people bigger stronger smarter nicer looking live longer kind
of the whole package on the other side there by Nancy kress is a novel from the
1990s early 1990s far less well-known Biggers in Spain I put it here because
it hones in on a specific element of human performance enhancement which is
the need for sleep think how productive you would be how talented you would be
how you could get ahead if only you didn’t have to put your head down on
that pillow for eight hours a day this is the story of a society where some of
the members of the society gain that ability and what happens within that
society and it does drive toward another kind of caste system and then in the
center is Center bottom you’ll see the minority
report by Philip dick he wrote the man in the high tower which
many of you will seen the series and so on and you probably saw the film the
Minority Report it’s with Tom Cruise and it’s centers on predictive abilities of
three mutants who can see the future in kind of precise ways but often disagree
between the three of them particularly in the novel which is somewhat different
than the film that book represents to me the ability to enhance human cognitive
ability so all three of these I think come at this with slightly different
dimensions and is it real who’s this scientists in the room Frederick Sanger
he won the Nobel Prize not once but twice
the Brits tried to Knight him and he turned down a knighthood because he said
it was too much trouble everyone calling him Sir all the time at the end of his
life he said I’m not a genius I’m just somebody who messed around in a lab he
was the origin of the idea of sequencing the human genome and where’s it gone
today what we see today in this field and several of the speakers have
addressed it more will unpackage it as we go along it’s not just about the
ability to sequence it’s about the ability to apply artificial intelligence
to it that’s what’s really driving this revolution that I would argue is right
in front of us recommendation how many people here have
seen one of the TED talks by this gentleman one Enriquez I highly
recommend you jump on and watch one or two of his TED Talks he has millions of
hits he’s clever he’s funny he
really unpackage –is these topics in ways that I think are quite quite good
and as we edged up toward that Time magazine cover this baby could live to
be a hundred and forty two years old do you see the reality of Sanger’s work
moving into the world and it could turn out like this bottom right that
photograph taken this morning in the shower think how much better I could
look if we could improve or right above it you know the big change that could
come about is I could have hair again think about that all of this is
approaching and it’s coming faster than we think and by the way if you don’t
think people are out there now doing human performance enhancement you
haven’t been paying attention to a rod on the right or the Russian doping
scandals or what the Chinese are doing to their soldiers all of this is
unpackaged in real time in front of us another novel to look into the future on
this it’s a novel I’ve read several times as starship troopers by Robert
Heinlein a Naval Academy graduate strangely enough and if you’ve seen that
movie you’ll remember a number of interesting scenes probably the shower
scene is the one that sticks with you but there’s a scene where a wounded
warrior is put in a tank to regrow his organs we’re not quite there yet but
when you look at the work being done here in this laboratory and what you can
walk out on that floor and learn about you can see that we are closing in on
all of these aspects of improving the human condition and we ought to be
cognizant that again fiction shows us that there’ll be goodness to that but
they’ll also be dangers ethically for our societies do we want a military that
can create a Captain America unambiguously good
virtuous perfect or how about the Wolverine kind of on the edge by the way
with this slide I’m fulfilling my wife’s comment which is that every good
presentation has a picture of Hugh Jackman in it somewhere there he is and
of course this kind of performance enhancement is not in any sense
relegated solely to human beings it also occurs most notably in crops that yellow
rice on the bottom is genetically altered to provide a higher vitamin
boost and yet there’s danger in that as well
we look at that and we think great what could go wrong try reading these three
novels you’ll know the one in this well you’ll know the one on the far right The
Hunger Games what is the symbol on the cover there
it’s the Mockingjay it’s a hybrid creature developed in a laboratory and
if you recall the set up – Mockingjay that Mockingjay was developed by the
Capitol to fly into the regions and listen to conversations and bring them
back it was an intelligence gathering platform the center one Margaret Atwood
the Canadian brilliant novelist who wrote most famously The Handmaid’s Tale
she also wrote a three-part series on a dystopian world in which genetically
modified animals had burst their bounds and overrun much of the world and dream
snake from the 1990s by Vonda MacIntyre also a Nebula Award winner is about
snakes and how they work through our minds so genetically altering creatures
and the outcomes of that can look like this
upper left that’s from Margaret Atwood’s book
those are big uns they’re huge pigs whose organs can be harvested that was
the good they break out into the wild they’re incredibly intelligent and they
become the most dangerous predators in this world the Mockingjay I mentioned
already upper right the chimera this idea of blending different breeds and
species and of course it’s not just animals can we use plants as sensors the
answer is we’re already doing it so all of this good of improvement also has a
side to it that can be dangerous and we ought to consider that so let’s turn to
the bad and I am gonna postulate and I think most folks would agree that
something that is onion big you ously bad is a pandemic a pandemic and of
course human history has seen repeated pandemics on the left is an illustration
of one that afflicted Athens 2,500 years ago on the right is a graphic from the
Black Death the black plague about five hundred years ago these plagues tend to
reoccur methodically in human history and as we have clustered and lived
closer and closer together and as we allow global travel they happen more
what happened 100 years ago in 1918 the Spanish Influenza so called because
people thought it started in Spain it actually started in US military camps in
France where our troops were being shepherded housed in very close quarters
being ready to be shipped back to the United States the numbers from this are
really quite startling Spanish influenza infected 40 percent of the world
population with a 20% mortality rate think about those numbers for a minute
you apply that to our current population of seven billion vastly globally
connected 40% infected that’s let’s call it three billion twenty percent
mortality rate that’s six hundred million that’s potential and you might
say well but you know we’re so much better prepared for it now we have you
know we can develop vaccine so quickly we know what we were doing we
communications you know these pandemics occur like a clock and a really bad one
tends to hit about every hundred years so I would say the bad is that we’re
kind of due for one we came close by the way as I think most of you know in 2014
to 2016 with Ebola fortunately Ebola cannot be transmitted
very effectively across an air gap it requires closer contact than that
unlike Spanish influenza which was capable of transmission across an air
gap Ebola was contained still flaring by the way if you’re not following this and
only 15,000 dead and the response was initially not very good but got better
so yep we are better clearly than we were in 1918 but I would argue this
still poses real danger and so as we have a conference where we talk about
bio and biotech in the military why talk about pandemics and the answer is if we
have to deal with a serious pandemic folks it’s going to require the military
now let me give you three more novels one in which all three about pandemics
one in which the military does nothing that’s station eleven and it becomes
very dystopian very quickly James’s book and she is a superb writer
this is her only foray into speculative fiction in the children of men she talks
about a society in which the population can no longer produce children and what
happens when finally one more baby appears there the military does have a
role and so you don’t you see less of a breakdown than you did in station 11
anybody read World War Z this is about a zombie infestation but take that aside
make it a pandemic and it is a portrait of a world that realizes to stop the
pandemic there’s in the end only one viable solution and it’s quarantine
vicious quarantine creating safe zones brutally locking them down and letting
the pandemic burn itself out outside of those zones of containment of the of the
healthy population so my point in terms of our conference is that militaries
because of their size and scale have got to be more prepared have more
conversations about this we have some nascent plans here in the United States
developed by us Northern Command good we need to think about this more seriously
as a mission and that means we need to be better trained equipped and organized
as the saying goes to deal with this because it’s an extremely different
mission obviously than anything our military has done in a large way ever so
I would say that as we have these conversations some of what we could talk
about would be how do you equip the military to be in these kind of zones
what kind of logistics do they need what kind of medical expertise do they need
what kind of field kits do they need to instantly diagnose
to look at blood samples in the field instantly there are a number of things
that I think ought to be part of the conversation as we deal not only with
the good which we’ve talked about but here something unambiguously bad which
is a pandemic so let me shift to a third collection of challenges and I’m gonna
call them the ugly and this is where I’m going to group bioterrorism bio warfare
and two novels both on the older side that get at this are executive orders by
Tom Clancy who was so far ahead of his time in so many different things he
wrote but in this novel he’s talking about Ebola and a bola attack in the
United States using a naturally occurring path in a Jen very effectively
and very cleverly to attack the United States
Michael Crichton is more fanciful his is a story of a pathogen that comes from
outer space but the science in it again way ahead of its time and is this real
biological warfare bioterrorism you bet first of all it’s ancient this goes back
as a technique to the Romans using catapults to loft diseased bodies
into population centers it’s as modern as the anthrax attacks upper right and
of course as a terrorist technique we saw it most dramatically using sarin in
the subways of Japan so this is real it’s not just what occurs in novels and
I would argue as a society we need to be better prepared for it and at the dark
end of the spectrum as I look at our potential opponents out there and by the
way if you haven’t been following the lovefest known as our North Korea talks
they’re stalled Mike Pompeo is not meeting with this counterpart
and we’re gonna have some big decisions coming up on North Korea which does
possess a significant biological Arsenal so that’s kind of the good the bad and
the ugly and I’m going to conclude with a prediction which I’m sure many of you
have read reycarts Wiles book The Singularity is near he postulates this
graphic bio info nano Kristine was asking me about you know last time we
did a conference on AI info cyber this time we’re doing a conference on bio she
asked me what do we do next I think it’s materials nano because
those three things bring Kurtz Wiles theorem home and here’s my prediction
the singularity is not near it’s here it’s here and we are just now starting
to understand that well right about now you got to say okay Admiral I’m
concerned things are moving fast what do you what do you think again I’m not a
scientist I’m not a technologist but I think we can look and find opportunities
here as well as the risks that I hope I’ve articulated this morning and let me
start with this read more but imagine more and that’s why I think fiction is a
valuable tool as we approach this world and other worlds as well other
challenges but we ought to be reading more and I hope I’ve given you some
ideas this morning as well with the 12 novels I laid out there what else can we
do we can do this we can listen better now this by the way is not Photoshop
this is an actual Belgian air defense system he’s listening for incoming
aircraft it’s from the 1930s it’s quite innovative when I was the NATO commander
working with the Belgians I thought maybe they still had a few of these
the point is it’s here as metaphor we need to listen better
that’s why conferences like this occurring at institutions this is the
Naval War College in Newport Rhode Island here at Johns Hopkins APL across
the Department of Defense and indeed the interagency listening more to each other
in settings like this Clark’s ideas and is so much a creative part of addressing
these challenges what else can we do we’ve talked a little bit this morning
about values about our ethics and this is teairra incognito by and large we
can’t decide if it’s okay to do the kind of bio work that makes somebody taller
sounds appealing to me we haven’t worked out whether it’s okay to pick the eye
color of a child what about the genetic modifications that we’ve discussed this
morning and some of the things I mentioned here we just haven’t built
that conversation yet and we need to put more in it of this of our values which
come by the way both from east and west so read more listen more convene hold
values what else can we do we need to get the interagency working together
more effectively when I was a NATO commander wrestling with some of these
issues I went down to the CDC in Atlanta and it was they were so shocked to see
that a military person would come and have a conversation we are famously
stove-piped in so many ways in our government but I would argue again the
singularity is here I would argue we need to move these organizations more
effectively together than we’re doing so interagency is part of the solution and
by the way so is international you know I always say we you know we have the
NATO alliance to hold back at the moment Russia famously NATO was created to
keep the Russians out keep the Americans in and keep the Germans down NATO today
is focused on keeping the Russians out good but where’s the NATO to cure cancer
where’s the NATO alliance a positive organization with real structure to
address these kind of challenges both good bad and ugly NATO at least exists
as an organization today there is an implementable path to move some of these
ideas into a forum like this we should take advantage of it so international I
think stands alongside interagency and by the way it’s not always going to be a
formal alliance like NATO this is the coalition against the Islamic state it’s
about as loose a coalition as you can come up with I think we’re up to 72
countries in it but the point is we should be thinking about coalition’s to
deal with these kind of challenges and we could start with a NATO conversation
looking at what happened in the Ebola response bring in some of the
traditional NATO partners Finland Sweden Australia New Zealand we have nations we
work with regularly and expand that conversation about pandemics and perhaps
about defense against bio warfare as well I think that’s all part of what we
need to do so interagency international what city is
this Cambridge Massachusetts the third thing we need interagency international
is private public cooperation these are some of the major bio centres in
Cambridge and as I’m sure most of you know the route 128 tech belt is about
many things but it is the Silicon Valley if you will of bio in biotech so finding
ways to bring the private sector and again I applaud Johns Hopkins APL for
putting a for like this together is a huge part of
this solution and then lastly to kind of wrap it up in some broad ways and then
we’ll open it up for a conversation we need to be in this world now what is
this you’re looking at that thinking okay retired Admiral these are shipping
routes no airline routes no fiber-optic cables under the oceans carrying the
Internet nope there’s way too many there are only
250 cables under the ocean they’re carrying essentially the entire Internet
this is Facebook the brighter the white the higher the concentration of Facebook
users the TEL is that China is dark wide because they hold those social networks
because their data mining them 2.2 billion maybe 2.3 billion people are on
Facebook I put it here not to shill for Facebook but to make the point that this
is a big global conversation and in addition to building the intellectual
capital like we do at a place like this today in addition to international
interagency and private public cooperation we need strategic
communication we need to incorporate more people into this conversation we
need to make the public more aware of what’s going on and the social networks
are a way to do that so I’ll I’ll close with one of the most enjoyable
experiences of my military career which was ordering deployment of these
hospital ships comfort and mercy these are extraordinary vessels and we sailed
them through the Caribbean we sailed them through Asia they’re full of
doctors nurses NGOs volunteers scientists they are extraordinary in
every way to me they are a symbol of the fact that the military in the medical
world and the world of biology do have a role together and that if we can improve
upon that with the ideas that come out of a conference like this we will
accomplish the Wikipedia objective Wikipedia’s vision statement is crystal
clear and very simple a world in which every human being can freely share in
the sum of all knowledge a world in which every human being can freely share
in the sum of all knowledge my thesis in this world the more we can collaborate
the more we can share the more likely we are to help create the good not the bad
and not the ugly in this 21st century thank you very much
pleasure being with you thank you okay so questions the question on slide Oh is
the military prepared for a response to pandemic how did you think about this
threat when you were in command the military as I alluded to and and I’m
actually Bob I’m giving you a fair warning here I’m gonna I’m gonna ask
former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob work to chime in here but I’ll give you
a combatant commanders perspective and then maybe Bob could provide a
high-level Pentagon perspective on this I would say the military has nascent
very basic kinds of plans to deal with immediate challenges in their in their
zone so as a combatant commander I had plans for dealing with outbreaks on my
certainly on my military installations I had to be prepared to render
humanitarian assistance in a larger segment of my remit both his Southern
Command and in US European Command but I don’t think and let me add that in terms
of were fighting certainly our soldiers our Airmen our
Navy troops we received basic training and how to operate in a bio warfare
scenario that’s the good the bad is that I my view I don’t think many of our
commanders focus on this because of the press of a thousand other things that
appear to them more more concerning I think that many of our senior commanders
don’t imagine themselves into this set of challenges and I think that it’s not
the comfort zone of the military so I think we have kind of the basics down
and as we saw during the Ebola deployment I think Bob you were in
office at that time perhaps you can comment we got our troops moving fast it
wasn’t perfect but we got in there we had a I think a very credible we were a
credible part of the response so yes we can do that my argument is not that we
turned the Department of Defense into the Department of Biology but that we do
prepare more for the bad and the ugly and we do think more imaginatively about
the good and how we can do performance enhancement how we can rehabilitate our
troops who are physically damaged as a result of combat operation so I’d say
we’re at the basic level I would argue we need to up our game Bob I agree with
what you said Jim essentially the only combatant commander who thinks
consistently about this threat is Northern Command correct because of the
potential bioterrorism attack or an pandemic effects in the continental
United States generally what the United States military would do is provide
logistics assistance to WHO an international or national response which
is exactly what we did in a both of them we brought gear and materiel we helped
set up isolation camps but generally the hard work to contain the
contain the outbreak was not done by the military the military was in support so
I agree with you this is not a mission that the military naturally or
consistance it consistently looks at yeah thanks Bob
a second slide Oh or someone in the room okay we have what we have additional
slider questions slide away all right so Kurtz wiles singularity is an
inflection point when runaway technological growth results in
unfathomable changes to human civilization what makes you believe that
we’ve reached that inflection point already I disagree with the premise
which is to say I think Kurtz Wiles book if you read it in its totality would say
that it’s not going to create a single moment of crystallization that cracks
open a billion changes I think what Kurtz while is talking about is a about
the merge of the three trends that I talked about and my argument would be
those things have in fact merged and what we have not done is distribute them
we have not created the norms of behavior yet that are going to crack
open the the enormous revolution so I think it’s it’s false to say with
respect to the questioner I think it’s false to say oh we don’t see
revolutionary changes therefore we’re not there yet I think we are there but
because of that age-old human tendency you know when humans go mountain
climbing they they always want to hold on to something before they grab the
next thing and it’s very scary to let go and reach for that next thing even if
you have a harness holding you to the side of that mountain for the climb we
haven’t yet made that leap of a combination of imagination and
investment to really catalyze this I believe that is coming I would
conclude by saying a question or and I are probably in the same zone this is a
timing conversation others so you mentioned Wikipedia and earlier we heard
about I am one crucial factor both those organizations share is an impressive
ability to marshal volunteer enthusiasm and channel it effectively when we think
about government and DoD that seems harder to think about how that that
particular strength could fit in I was wondering if you you might have some
speculation on how we might harness that kind of resources for the needs we’re
talking about yeah I can’t it’s a great question and and just if you haven’t
really tuned in on the Wikipedia structure here’s the greatest body of
knowledge ever assembled it it is more encompassing than the ancient library in
Alexandria the Widener Library at Harvard and the Library of Congress
everything is in the wiki yet how many people work at Wikipedia about a hundred
and twenty people work there it’s because all of us are doing it and
that’s really your point can the DoD harness that kind of activity I I think
it is unlikely that we’re going to see the creation of a civilian bio
Corps to fold in with the Department of Defense what I do think is likely is
that because we are so big the department we have so many people we
have so many resources that we can effectively tap in and Network out to
organizations like IgM like Wikipedia but at a more sophisticated level either
than either any more sophisticated level than either of those and that’s going to
require a consciousness of thought but I don’t think we’re gonna see a sudden
upsurge of bio volunteers the closest I can come to it is that picture I showed
you of the hospital ship there we do energize
in the bio world not only doctors performing patient treatments but also
those who want to come to study to do research that connectivity exists I
think we should continue to work on it and that’s where I meant by the private
public cooperation great question thank you
we’ve got time for one more how do we get commanders to start to consider the
possibilities for biotech on the battlefield or at sea
hopefully through events like this secondly through encouraging our
commanders in our our troops to read and think more thirdly by putting challenges
in front of them so I would argue that a good place to start would be doing a
Department of Defense wide exercise that looks at our ability to deal with a
pandemic not confining it just to Northern Command as secretary work
correctly points out but what is south cop’s responsibility what is you comms
responsibility what does pay comes responsibility because here’s a news
flash global pandemics are global and we’re not going to we’re not going to
solve that problem by NORTHCOM in the United States it’s going to be an all
zone effort we ought to exercise that more the challenge of course is that
there are more immediate pressing things that we want to practice and so I think
the best way our commanders can inject themselves into this is to be part of
that conversation whether you’re a two-star on a staff somewhere or even a
commander of a battalion you still have authorities that would allow you at
least to put all of this on the radar of your organization to push up the chain
of command with your good ideas they may or may not be well-received but again
back to the previous slide Oh question are we at a significant inflection point
I think we are and I would argue that our commanders our leadership can be
part of that they need to be made more aware and that’s why I want to conclude
with a big thanks for John Hopkins APL for putting this together
thank you very much been great being with you thank you so much thank you