Volume 30 Number 5
Don't Get Me Started - Gone Viral
By David Platt | May 2015
If you want to sleep tonight, close this magazine now.
Couldn’t do it, could you? OK, read on, and then stay awake along with me.
We’ve wiped out smallpox, probably the greatest public health triumph in human history. The last endemic case occurred in 1978. Wikipedia describes it in the past tense: “Smallpox was an infectious disease ....” But you and I, my fellow geeks, are bringing it back.
We were able to eradicate smallpox because the virus had no host other than humans, no animal reservoirs as rabies or influenza have. But Leonard Adleman, professor of computer science and molecular biology at USC, and the “A” in RSA, wrote a column last fall (nyti.ms/19QH68q) and said, “… the smallpox virus has now found a second host. It is not the pig. In fact, it is not even what we think of as a living thing. It is the computer.”
Think you’ll sleep tonight if you slam this magazine shut right now, or close your browser and erase your history like your boss just knocked on your door? Too late, my friend. Too late.
“Smallpox has miraculously and unconsciously saved itself through an extraordinary act of evolution,” Adleman wrote. “After thousands of years, it was on the verge of extinction; it existed in one small girl, and just before that girl’s immune system killed its last living member, a sample was taken and stored in a lab. Years later, that sample was used by another lab to sequence the viral genome. The sequence was placed on a computer, infecting a new ‘species’ that had just come into existence.” That new host species is our creation, yours and mine.
You can’t find the smallpox genome online today, at least not reliably, at least not yet. But do you seriously think it will stay buried for long? One word: Snowden. Would WikiLeaks publish it? Probably. And if not, then some other organization.
How bad can that be, I hear you wondering. Constructing an actual virus from a genetic sequence is difficult, isn’t it? No, not enormously. It was done with polio in 2002 (see 1.usa.gov/1N9e2a2). And like all technology, it’s getting easier and cheaper all the time. Again, Adleman:
“In my lab there was a machine much like a soda dispenser, only in this case the reservoirs were filled with chemicals. If I typed in a short word of my choice using the letters A, T, C and G, the machine would squirt one chemical after another into a test tube. When it was done, the test tube would contain trillions of molecules of DNA. Each would look like a necklace, with molecules of adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine (the building blocks of DNA) strung according to the word I had typed.”
It’s easy to mock this fear. Will Kaspersky updates now include cowpox? Or will Clippy pop up while I’m writing this: “I see you’re synthesizing a deadly bioweapon. Can I help?” Or vaccine rejectionist Jenny McCarthy say, “Let’s have smallpox parties so our kids can acquire immunity naturally”?
You could say, hey, no biggie. This isn’t Ebola. We’ve had a safe, cheap, reliable smallpox vaccine for 200 years. I remember getting a vaccination at age six, then another around 15—not a huge deal. It doesn’t even need refrigeration any more.
All true. But look at the panic in the United States last fall about Ebola reaching our shores—all from four cases and one death. I don’t want to be in New York City the day a guy infected with smallpox rides the subway.
It’s coming. We’re bringing it. Unintentionally, as a side effect of beneficial activities, but we’re the ones unlocking it. And I’m having real trouble sleeping, knowing that our creations are resurrecting this deadly enemy of humanity.
I hope to be at the Microsoft Ignite conference in Chicago May 4-8. You'll find this magazine in your attendee bags. Look for me to get it autographed, unless you'd rather leave it undamaged. I'll be the one with bags under my eyes from no sleep. And if you've read this far, so will you.
David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.