A prevailing theme of global guerrilla theory is that personal superempowerment will change the face of warfare. Most of the superempowerment we see today is from rampant globalization (infrastructure/connectivity in travel to economics to communications) which has radically improved the ability of small groups to conduct guerrilla warfare. We see the results of this in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and other garden spots around the world.
Nuclear TerrorHowever, globalization has made catastrophic super-empowerment possible too, in the form nuclear terrorism. Fortunately, the critical materials necessary for the development of nuclear bombs still reside primarily within state control due to the difficulty of their manufacturing. So while globalization may make these materials more accessible -- in that it is easier to acquire, manipulate, and deliver nuclear materials than ever before -- it is still difficult and likely not something that could be repeated with any frequency. This makes the probability of any nuclear terrorist event resemble a power curve with a very steep and relatively stable coefficient -- which means that while catastrophic events may occur, they are likely to be very rare.
Carlson Curves and BioterrorThe probability of catastrophic threats from superempowerment changes when we take into account technologies that are subject to rapid rates of improvement due to Moore's law. The most prominent of these technologies, for the medium term, is biotechnology. The best source I have found that measures the onset of this is Robert Carlson's "The Pace and Proliferation of Biological Technologies." He provides:
- Evidence that biotechnology is improving at rates equal or better than Moore's law. These "Carlson Curves" plot the reduction in cost and the improvements in productivity available to individual practitioners. This means that very soon, in less than a decade, the technologies necessary for individuals to build catastrophic pathogens will be cheap and widely available. "Labs on a chip" are in the offing.
- The knowledge and information necessary for developing catastrophic pathogens will be globally dispersed. As Carlson points out, work that used to require a PhD a couple of years ago is now accomplished by lightly trained technicians. Further, the low capital costs of laboratory development and its importance to the private sector means that this training and technology will be widespread. Finally, most of the information necessary for even extremely dangerous pathogens is available online.
- There are no material barriers to the production of biological weapons. While certain reagents are currently controlled, the manufacturing processes for these materials and their widespread usage pose few barriers to circumvention. Unlike nuclear proliferation, there aren't any natural choke points.
The Revised Potential for Bioterror
So while the potential of bioterror now has a power law distribution steeper than nuclear terror (due to a transient difficulty in the production of pathogens), the coefficient of this curve will quickly change as biotechnology progresses. Not only will large events be more likely, we will likely see the development of a fat tail composed of small events by careless practitioners as tinkering networks develop to take advantage of this newfound superempowerment. Finally, as we saw with Phishing networks, some of these tinkerers will naturally flow into criminal networks that will actively produce weapons of bioterror for profit, and thereby become critical contributors to the global open source war now underway.