The J Curve

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Brainstorm Questions

The editors of FORTUNE magazine asked four questions of the attendees of Brainstorm 2006. Ross Mayfield is blogging the replies and the ongoing conference. Here are my answers to two of the questions:


None of the individuals named today.

I would bet that in 2016, when we look back on who has had the greatest impact in the prior 10 years, it will be an entrepreneur, someone new, someone unknown to us at this time.

Looking forward from the present, we tend to amplify the leaders of the past. But in retrospect, it’s always clear that the future belongs to a new generation. A new generation of leaders will transcend political systems that cater to the past. I would bet more on a process of empowerment than any particular person.


I tend to be out of touch with fear as an emotion, and so I find myself rationally processing the question and thinking of the worst near-term catastrophe that could affect all of us.

At perhaps no time in recorded history has humanity been as vulnerable to viruses and biological pathogens as we are today. We are entering the golden age of natural viruses, and genetically modified and engineered pathogens dramatically compound the near term threat.

Bill Joy summarizes that “The risk of our extinction as we pass through this time of danger has been estimated to be anywhere from 30% to 50%.”

Why are we so vulnerable now?

The delicate "virus-host balance" observed in nature (whereby viruses tend not to be overly lethal to their hosts) is a byproduct of biological co-evolution on a geographically segregated planet. And now, both of those limitations have changed. Organisms can be re-engineered in ways that biological evolution would not have explored, or allowed to spread widely, and modern transportation undermines natural quarantine formation.

One example: According to Preston in The Demon in the Freezer, a single person in a typical university bio-lab can splice the IL-4 gene from the host into the corresponding pox virus. The techniques and effects are public information. The gene is available mail order.

The IL-4 splice into mousepox made the virus 100% lethal to its host, and 60% lethal to mice who had been vaccinated (more than 2 weeks prior). Even with a vaccine, the IL-4 mousepox is twice as lethal as natural smallpox (which killed ~30% of unvaccinated people).

The last wave of “natural” human smallpox killed over one billion people. Even if we vaccinated everyone, the next wave could be twice as lethal. And, of course, we won’t have time to vaccinate everyone nor can we contain outbreaks with vaccinations. 

Imagine the human dynamic and policy implications if we have a purposeful IL-4 outbreak before we are better prepared…. Here is a series of implications that I fear:

1) Ring vaccinations and mass vaccinations would not work, so
2) Health care workers cannot come near these people, so

3) Victims could not be relocated (with current people and infrastructure) without spreading the virus to the people involved.

4) Quarantine would be essential, but it would be in-situ. Wherever there is an outbreak, there would need to be a hair-trigger quarantine.

5) Unlike prior quarantines, where people could hope for the best, and most would survive, this is very different: everyone in the quarantine area dies.

6) Where do you draw the boundary? Neighborhood? The entire city? With 100% lethality, the risk-reward ratio on conservatism shifts.

7) How do you enforce the quarantine? Everyone who thinks they are not yet infected will try to escape with all of the fear and cunning of someone facing certain death if they stay. It would require an armed military response with immediate deployment capabilities.

8) The ratio of those available to enforce quarantine to those contained makes this seem completely infeasible. With unplanned quarantine locations, there is no physical infrastructure to assist in the containment.

9) Once word about a lost city spreads, how long would it take for ad-hoc or planned “accelerated quarantine” to emerge?
10) Once rumor of the quarantine policy spreads, doctors would have a strong perverse incentive to not report cases until they made it out of town…


  • Even if we humans die off from a biological pathogen, since a recent AI breakthrough there is a good chance that our robotic mind-children will survive us and resurrect us.

    By Anonymous mindmaker, at 8:40 PM  

  • On THAT happy note... What were the other two questions?

    By Anonymous Gerald Buckley, at 9:41 AM  

  • And now for something completely different... =)

    The other question that I answered:

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 3:16 PM  

  • So Steve, do you remember who lived across the hall from you in Roble? :)

    I enjoyed "The Demon in the Freezer" as well.

    While there isn't exacty a surplus of post bio-apocalyptic fiction I place "Earth abides" at the top of my list.

    Marty Tibbitts

    By Blogger mtibbitts, at 6:35 PM  

  • I´ve just read this quote and immediately thought of you...

    "It's important to feel that you're expected to make a difference--and that you're qualified to do so. Innovation requires a fundamental belief that individuals are important." -Robert Dennard

    Take note, it can be useful to illustrate your thoughts. =)

    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 2:14 AM  

  • In my case, It would be those who aspire to lead the world, those who supports the ambitious beings, and lastly those who are fooled by these beings.
    And now my question: " Who are these ambitious beings?"

    By Anonymous tin231, at 9:52 PM  

  • Great answers. I'll consider mine and post them when I get a chance.

    By Anonymous Web Marketing Mentor, at 12:27 AM  

  • Yikes.
    Reminds me of Dr. Brian Weiss' predictions (based on information gotten from progressing his patients to future times using hypnosis). According to these predictions, the human population will drastically decrease over the next few centuries (don't know whether it will be gradual or sudden). The ones that remain will become more spiritual in nature (or is it the other way around - only the more spiritual souls will remain in the reincarnation cycle on earth?). I say just take the usual precautions (get the recommended shots, etc.), hope for the best, and live everyday to the fullest. What will be will be, so no use worrying too much about anything.

    By Anonymous Amy, at 11:14 AM  

  • exellent read, thanks!

    - Steven Burda, MBA
    Connect to me:

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:17 PM  

  • Regarding the social implications, I recently heard an interesting question from the director of SRI International:

    "I worry most about synthesized smallpox. Remember the anthrax scare, when five people died...Do you know how many people checked into the hospital with putative anthrax symptoms?

    1.2 million people."

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 3:42 PM  

  • In retrospect, I wonder if people would have picked Elon Musk back in early 2006 in response to the first question? No Tesla car or SpaceX launch yet then...

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 4:36 PM  

  • and my original musings from 2004:

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 11:50 AM  

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