Bull Session

Bio Threat Games

June 29, 2018          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we discuss “gaming” techniques and design fiction for the purposes of imagining possible scenarios around emerging technologies and their effects and consequences.

Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security recently sponsored an exercise in Washington DC, CladeX, to evaluate governmental response to potential future pandemics. This exercise introduced a scenario—using realistic virology and epidemiological models—in which a man-made virus was released as part of a terrorist attack. This CladeX exercise is similar to the type of envisioning practice that’s used in design fiction to work through the implications of a new technology, imagine it within a human context, and look at elements related to its misuse. As a part of the event, the Center for Health Security also presented strategic policy recommendations for preventing or reducing the worst possible outcomes in future pandemics. Join us as we discuss.

It’s fiction, but America just got wiped out by a man-made terror germ

Welcome to episode 264 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and cohost Dirk Knemeyer.

Greetings, listeners.

For our podcast this week, we’re going to take a look at the use of gaming techniques or scenario techniques for imagining and planning around emerging technologies and their effects and consequences. In particular, my eye was drawn to the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, which just recently sponsored an exercise called Clade X, which was held in Washington DC. At that event, pandemic planners, say that quickly, took a look at the threat posed by synthetic biology. About a decade ago, the same group took a look at a terrorist scenario, which turned out to be prescient in so far as it was 2001 prior to the events of September 11th.

Some of the aspects of this scenario planning event that they held turned out to at least have factual implications as September 11th and the subsequent anthrax terrorist attacks occurred all sort of within that same time period. Particularly notable, this scenario was planned around an Al-Qaeda operation, which this was the scenario that they had gamed just slightly before the attacks, which is kind of disturbing if you think about it.

No. In some ways it makes you more confident that they have some idea of what they’re doing. That they’re sort of prescient in that way, right?

Yeah. Johns Hopkins has this Center for Health Security and their research center. The purpose of their center is to support the organizations and systems and policies that are essential to either preventing or responding to public health crisis. That’s the purpose of the center. With that preamble, let’s turn then to this gaming program that they had last month. This was built around the idea that there would be a pathogen that was created via synthetic biology. They used real epidemiological models and this was created by one of their expert physicians and pandemic specialists.

By the time they had finished creating this scenario, they realized that they couldn’t share all of the details because it was so sensitive. Meaning that not only is this sort of a realistic scenario, but they actually don’t want to be giving it out as a template for some foolish person to try out or some group to try out. The whole purpose of this kind of scenario gaming is to consider some of these scenarios within sort of the ethical and policy considerations that are not typically addressed, whether that’s within the halls in Washington DC or in the corporate boardroom, right?

What happens when these emerging technologies sort of rise to the surface in some area that is detrimental to human society. At the end of this scenario, they put forth a set of policy recommendations. It’s not just a bunch of hand waving and then they walk away from it. This is conducted with some very smart experienced people around the table and then they produce a set of policy recommendations, which we’ll take a look at in a minute.

Dirk, for the purposes of our show, what fascinates me about this is the use of this gaming technique, these design techniques to really consider policy and ethics around emerging technologies. What were your takeaways when you were sort of examining this event?

I thought it was interesting. There’s a long history of this kind of war gaming scenario planning that is done by the government or in organizations or groups such as this one. There was nothing surprising about it conceptually. Certainly the sort of predictive nature of the things that they did in 2001 was a surprise. In some ways, again a pleasant one because it shows that they’re thinking of things that are real and concrete. It stands to reason then that if we can act upon those predictions and prepare, we’ll be much better off. That was a little bit heartening.

In the specific examples of the more modern things, I mean the thing that really hit me the most was the fact that sort of the framing of the article is sort of gloom and doomy, but it also said, “Well, look, now we’re faster at developing new vaccines than ever before.” It’s potentially just days to develop a vaccine for a pandemic like the one that they were talking about in that … I don’t think it technically is a war game, but I’ll call it a war game. That felt really good. You can see the progress on the preventative side, as well as the antagonistic side. That’s somewhat to be expected, but again it’s just sort of heartening that that’s what’s going on.

I did just have some familiar with war gaming and this kind of sort of large scale scenario planning exercise in the past. Structurally there wasn’t too much surprising. They’re most just some of the outcomes.

I think that for me this kind of scenario planning and gaming is not my background, not my experience.

I’m a gaming geek. It’s my nerd part, so that’s why I know about it. Yeah.

I was doing some reading on the practice around design fiction, which has some similarities to what the Johns Hopkins center was doing. There are a couple areas of design fiction that I thought were worth highlighting. One was that as you’re working through these scenarios, part of the value of it is to communicate with the public about the scenario taking place, right? I mean just the fact that we’re discussing it on the show, the ideas that there’s a need for the government to plan around pandemics that are manmade and not just naturally incurring. They’re already achieving part of that goal, right? The communication goal.

The second part was using fictional scenarios to evaluate, which is obviously why they held it in the first place and what the policy recommendation, what the purpose of generating those is. Thirdly, to put the technology into a human context so it’s not just sort of an ethereal engineered piece, but rather something that affects real human beings. Then finally, the ethical and social considerations, which unfortunately in this scenario that they were gaming, the social considerations were quite negative. I think at the conclusion of their game, they had millions of people were killed by the pandemic and the first vaccine had failed.

It was a disaster of monstrous proportions. The idea that all of these elements which are quite possible and which require discussion prior to them actually happening bring this to the forefront of public discussion is something that I think design can help draw out, right? We talk about emerging technologies all the time on the show. The implications of these technologies are very much inside baseball I think. Largely the first part of this design fiction, the communication part, like that is just not … It doesn’t really happen until that technology is embedded into people’s lives.

Then we start to discussion what the implications are, what were the unintended consequences, how is it affecting us. You can see this with examples of every technology from the automotive industry all the way to the mobile computing industry. We sort of let the technology roll out on its own and then we discuss what the implications are afterward.

Yeah. Yeah. I mean there’s a couple things to talk about here. I mean one is we don’t want to take it too literally either, right? I mean it is at the end of the day a game and it’s a game designed by a one person. Tara O’Toole. I’ve never heard of her before. For her to be making this game, she must be very knowledgeable and very talented. I don’t want to take anything away from her. However, she is bringing to it some limited knowledge, some types of bias, and also some objectives other than coming up with essential truths for the world to know. She’s trying to test these people. She’s trying to test these systems and find issues, rude out problems with them.

There’s not a one to one between the assumptions that this game makes about the world and how the world would really behave. I think that’s important to say. I say it and bring those up again really admiring what she did. I’m not capable of designing something like she did. It’s pretty cool. The other thing that I really found notable is the fact that the creation of these sort of things has changed so much since 2001. The anthrax terrorist attack, for lack of a better word, in 2001 was perpetrated by an American scientist. The amount of people who had access to anthrax who were able to manufacture anthrax in 2001 is a microscopic number.

I don’t know what that number is, but it was difficult, it was expensive, it was highly controlled. The risk with the technologies we’re developing today is that they are increasingly accessible to more and more people. You don’t need to be an expert with a PhD. You don’t need to have top secret credentials. Whatever the different bars were, more and more some random bro who researches it could home brew something that would be really catastrophic. I’m not knowledgeable enough to know where on the continuum we are. From old days almost impossible. Today is it dead simple or just simple? I’m not sure, but I know how the technology’s moving.

It gets simpler and cheaper and more accessible everyday. That’s happening in a world where we have school shooters and people who go off the deep end and do really dumb stuff. We talk about guns, assault guns and weapons, being dangerous and maybe they should be banned. I happen to think they should. However, the high end of death and destruction from those worst case is in the hundreds, which is awful. I’m not saying it’s not, but we’re talking about with different designer drugs, different designer viruses, we’re talking about things where it could be in the millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions.

If it becomes too accessible and in the hands of too many people who are not qualified from the standpoint of mental health among other things to be creating that and doing things with it, it’s wicked dangerous. There’s a lot of questions and concerns about that. In the democratization of science and knowledge, there’s so much good of it. At some point, we’re going to make a grave error and the wrong person is going to be get their hands on things they shouldn’t and a lot of people are going to die. The question is what do we do after that and I’m not sure what we’ll do.

I think from a technology standpoint, at least the way I understand it, I mean you could certainly create a … On your computer, you could create the sequence for this virus, but then you would need to actually get it manufactured somewhere. There in lies sort of the gate, right, between the …

For now.

Right. The manufacture of, the creation of that sequence, you’re not going to email that off to XYZ Lab and they’re not going to say, “Oh, this looks like a harmless pathogen. Let’s just manufacture a few ounces for you and mail it back to you.” That’s not going to happen.

Sure, but I mean it’s a world of 3D printing. I mean it’s a world where we are creating highly localized abilities to manufacture things that once needed to be done in a factory or in a much more complicated and difficult manufacturing environment. There’s some intersection of the two where even if there are certain chemicals or compounds that are illegal or are difficult to get a hold of, there’s some overlap between those two places where really gnarly things could happen.

Certainly that is a consideration that as the technology improves, that could become a problem for sure. I think about the … Whether we’re talking about an example from making a bomb or getting chemicals that … I mean you can get all sorts of dangerous chemicals just walking into your pool store, right? There are some limitations in place and then there are some stuff that unfortunately in a free society you’re going to have to make a decision like who has access to what materials.

That seems like a good point to leave our discussion for today, but suffice to say we’ll continue to discuss the idea of design fiction and gaming as a way of sussing out the important details for evaluating emerging technologies. I think it’s a fascinating area of design and I find it really interesting that this Johns Hopkins center is using a technique like that for developing their policy recommendations. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L in thedigitalife. Go to the page for this episode.

We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everyone. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, Sound Cloud, Stitcher, Player FM and Google Play. If you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @JonFollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @DKnemeyer. That’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.

That’s it for episode 264 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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