Tag Archives: nerve agents

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)

Assassinations and Top Secret Chemicals: the case of Novichok Nerve Agent

In 2018, one of the Novichok nerve agents was used in an attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy on U.K. soil—spurring the United States and allies to lift the veil of secrecy and mount a drive to outlaw the obscure class of nerve agents, concocted in a Soviet weapons lab during the height of the Cold War. Now, their effort to amend the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is about to pay off.

On 9 October, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body that administers the treaty, reviewed a revised proposal from Russia that would bring Novichoks under the treaty’s verification regime, along with a class of potential weapons known as carbamates. If the Russian proposal and a similar one from the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands are approved at a treaty review meeting in December 2019.

The newfound glasnost on Novichoks, also known as fourth-generation nerve agents, should spur research on their mechanism of action and on countermeasures and treatments.   Chemical weapons experts had been whispering about Novichoks for decades.   Treaty nations have long resisted adding Novichoks to the CWC’s so-called Schedule 1 list of chemical weapons, which compels signatories to declare and destroy any stockpiles. “People were worried about a Pandora’s box,” fearing such a listing would force them to regulate ingredients of the weapons, Koblentz says. That could hamper the chemical industry and might clue in enemies on how to cook them up. (Who has the agents now is anyone’s guess.) Indeed, the U.S. government for years classified the Novichok agents as top secret. “There was a desire among Western countries to keep the information as limited as possible to avoid proliferation issues,” Koblentz says.

The 2018 assassination attempt against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, U.K., thrust the Novichok agents into the spotlight. The botched attack gravely sickened Skripal, his daughter Yulia, two police officers who investigated the crime scene, and a couple—Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess—who a few months later happened on a perfume bottle containing the agent. After long hospitalizations, the Skripals, the officers, and Rowley recovered; Sturgess died. The United Kingdom charged two Russian men, reportedly military intelligence officers, as the alleged assailants, and obtained a European warrant for their arrest; they remain at large in Russia.

Excerpts from Richard Stone, Obscure Cold War nerve agents set to be banned, Science, Oct. 25, 2019