Tag Archives: DARPA and chemical weapons

How Artificial Intelligence Can Help Produce Better Chemical Weapons

An international security conference convened by the Swiss Federal Institute for NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) Protection —Spiez Laboratory explored how artificial intelligence (AI) technologies for drug discovery could be misused for de novo design of biochemical weapons.  According to the researchers, discussion of societal impacts of AI has principally focused on aspects such as safety, privacy, discrimination and potential criminal misuse, but not on national and international security. When we think of drug discovery, we normally do not consider technology misuse potential. We are not trained to consider it, and it is not even required for machine learning research.

According to the scientists, this should serve as a wake-up call for our colleagues in the ‘AI in drug discovery’ community. Although some expertise in chemistry or toxicology is still required to generate toxic substances or biological agents that can cause significant harm, when these fields intersect with machine learning models, where all you need is the ability to code and to understand the output of the models themselves, they dramatically lower technical thresholds. Open-source machine learning software is the primary route for learning and creating new models like ours, and toxicity datasets that provide a baseline model for predictions for a range of targets related to human health are readily available.

The genie is out of the medicine bottle when it comes to repurposing our machine learning. We must now ask: what are the implications? Our own commercial tools, as well as open-source software tools and many datasets that populate public databases, are available with no oversight. If the threat of harm, or actual harm, occurs with ties back to machine learning, what impact will this have on how this technology is perceived? Will hype in the press on AI-designed drugs suddenly flip to concern about AI-designed toxins, public shaming and decreased investment in these technologies? As a field, we should open a conversation on this topic. The reputational risk is substantial: it only takes one bad apple, such as an adversarial state or other actor looking for a technological edge, to cause actual harm by taking what we have vaguely described to the next logical step. How do we prevent this? Can we lock away all the tools and throw away the key? Do we monitor software downloads or restrict sales to certain groups?

Excerpts from Fabio Urbina et al, Dual use of artificial-intelligence-powered drug discovery, Nature Machine Intelligence (2022)

Treating People Like Roaches-no longer legal

Since its adoption in 1993, the Chemical Weapons Convention has banned the development, possession, and use of weaponized toxic chemicals.  However, whether this prohibition also applied to law enforcement use of certain agents that act on the central nervous system (CNS) remained the subject of debate. In December 2021,  Chemical Weapons Convention adopted a landmark Decision to effectively outlaw the aerosolized use of CNS-acting chemical agents for law enforcement purposes.  

Although 85 countries supported the Decision, including Australia, Switzerland, and the United States, the vote was opposed by 10 countries, which may not feel constrained by its prohibitions. Notable among the opponents was Russia, whose security forces used aerosolized fentanyl derivatives to end the 2002 Moscow theater siege, causing the deaths of more than 120 hostages from poisoning and asphyxiation. Subsequent dual-use research into CNS-acting chemicals has been reported by Russian scientists as well as scientists from China and Iran, who also opposed this Decision.

Furthermore, the Decision is limited in scope. It explicitly prohibits only aerosolized CNS weapons, excluding other delivery mechanisms such as law enforcement dart guns…
Excerpt from MICHAEL CROWLEY AND MALCOLM DANDO, Central nervous system weapons dealt a blow, Science, Jan. 14, 2022

Destruction of Chemical Weapons: DARPA

Chemical weapons are banned by treaties, though that hasn’t stopped a few countries from maintaining stockpiles. Right now it’s possible to clean up that mess, but it’s a tremendous amount of work, and expensive work too….[DARPA] has in the works the “Agnostic Compact Demilitarization of Chemical Agents” or ACDC. Their goal: a machine that turns chemical-weapon-tainted soil into fertile soil, that can fit roughly in a shipping container, and is a fraction of the cost to process the chemicals today…

After chemical weapons were used in the Syrian civil war, the Syrian government, under international supervision, revealed their stockpile and turned it over to an international team. That team, using the U.S. Navy’s Cape Ray ship, incinerated and neutralized tons of chemical agents over the better part of a year, while at sea. The cost was around $250 million.

[Southwest Research Institute]’s approach combines a commercially available reforming-engine technology that, along with local soil, can convert organic molecules to non-hazardous components. The engine is designed such that, as part of the destruction process, the organic molecules act as a fuel and efficiently generate recoverable energy that can be converted to electricity. The SwRI process is agnostic to the chemical to be degraded, and is a much greener process than either conventional hydrolysis or incineration, both of which are logistically intensive and require subsequent secondary treatment of large amounts of hazardous waste.

The project is only nine months along. Next year, the team is hopeful they’ll have a demonstration of the technology, and then, when the project’s 36 months are up, they are aiming for a chemical cleaning tool just 1 percent as expensive as the Cape Ray mission. The cost of ACDC, if all goes according to plan, is expected to be just $2.6 million.

Excerpt from Kelsey D. Atherton, DARPA WANTS TO TRANSFORM CHEMICAL WAR SITES INTO FERTILE SOIL, Popular Science, May 12, 2016