Dual-use research of concern (DURC) refers to beneficial research that can easily be misused to harm public health and safety.
AI, ML, and 3D printing technologies can discover and predict a chemical’s suitability for use as a weapon, produce it at a relevant scale, optimally weaponize it, and store safely. Pharmaceutical aerosol technologies with agricultural spray drones for the delivery of airborne chemical and biological warfare agents will have devastating results.
An article titled “Dual use of artificial-intelligence-powered drug discovery” in Nature Machine Intelligence on March 7, 2022 by Fabio Urbina and the team at Collaborations Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Raleigh, NC, US, drew attention to the Existing fears that drug discovery software with artificial intelligence and machine learning can be misused to discover deadly new biochemical weapons that are difficult to detect or trace, and with no known antidotes. In this study, they used their commercial de novo molecule generator, “MegaSyn”, with a modified approach to select rather than reject toxic molecules, especially those like the nerve agent VX and Novichok. In less than 6 hours, it generated 40,000 known and unknown nerve agent molecules like VX that reached the desired threshold of nerve toxicity. It is easier to discover highly toxic chemicals than to find an effective and safe therapeutic drug and then optimize its production and distribution.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the simulation of human intelligence with neural-like electronic networks on a powerful computer. This ability of AI to learn and solve problems is used for natural language processing, speech recognition, facial recognition such as computer vision and expert systems such as IBM Watson, in addition to simplifying and accelerating the drug discovery. IBM Watson was used to provide personalized recommendations to cancer patients. AI is very useful in the analysis of big data as in commerce: optimization of products, stocks, logistics, etc.
Machine Learning (ML) simulates a human gaining experience by performing repetitive tasks to improve performance and improve results. A drug discovery platform uses AI with ML to study the mode of action of known drug molecules and their active parts, to discover more effective drug molecules with desirable actions and no adverse reactions.
Dual-Use Research of Concern (DURC) refers to beneficial research that can easily be diverted to harm public health and safety, agricultural plants and crops, commercial and other animals, the environment, or national security. It generally refers to life science research like gain-of-function research that can be used to create viruses like Covid-19, but also includes other areas like the discovery of highly toxic chemicals, the design of lethal autonomous weapons and robots and the use of information technologies such as deep-fakes for disinformation and warfare. Nuclear technology was weaponized in World War II and space technology is now weaponized.
Weaponized AI, ML and 3D printing enable rogue state and non-state entities like terrorists and criminals to design tens of thousands of toxic molecules within hours, as reported by Fabio Urbina and his team in the article mentioned above. Although a number of chemical warfare agents exist and their development, stockpiling, transfer and use have been banned since World War I, with restrictions tightened since 1993, covert research and development continues . AI, ML with drug and chemical discovery software can simplify and accelerate the discovery of highly toxic and hard-to-trace chemicals without known antidotes or cures. 3D printing technology can facilitate the clandestine synthesis and manufacture of the chemical. These technologies can discover and predict a chemical’s suitability for use as a weapon, produce it at an appropriate scale, weaponize it optimally, and store it safely. These chemicals can be administered orally, usually in water or liquids, through the skin, or inhaled as a gas or aerosol. Pharmaceutical aerosol research has helped deliver drugs deep into the lungs of asthma patients. Such technologies that produce 2 micrometer aerosols when used with agricultural spray drones for the delivery of airborne chemical and biological warfare agents will have devastating results.
Dr. PS Venkatesh Rao is a Consultant Endocrine, Breast and Laparoscopic Surgeon in Bengaluru.