Today we’re presenting the third installment of my conversation with Naval Ravikant about existential risks. This interview first appeared in March, as two back-to-back episodes of the After On Podcast (which now features 50 unhurried conversations with world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists). Naval is one of tech’s most successful angel investors and the founder of multiple startups—including seed-stage investment platform AngelList. Please check out parts one and two of this conversation if you missed them. Otherwise, you can press play on the embedded audio player or pull up the transcript, both of which are below.
In this segment, Ravikant and I move on from yesterday’s topic of AI risk to the dangers inherent in the rise of synthetic biology, or synbio. Here, I should disclose that I am a hopeless synbio fanboy. I’ve gotten to know many of the field’s top figures through my podcast, and I essentially revere both their work and its potential. But even the most starry-eyed synbio booster cannot ignore the technology’s annihilating potential.
A big topic in today’s segment is a genetic hack performed on H5N1 flu. This nasty bug kills a higher proportion of those infected than even Ebola (as discussed in some detail in this piece on Ars yesterday). But since its wild form is barely even contagious to humans, it has historically killed very few of us. But in 2011, independent research teams in Wisconsin and Holland modified H5N1’s genome to make it virulently contagious.