Tag Archives: top secret chemicals

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

Are We Transgressing the Planetary Boundaries?

There are an estimated 350,000 different types of manufactured chemicals on the global market. These include plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, chemicals in consumer products, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals….The rate at which these pollutants are appearing in the environment far exceeds the capacity of governments to assess global and regional risks, let alone control any potential problems..

In 2009, an international team of researchers identified nine planetary boundaries that demarcate the remarkably stable state Earth has remained within for 10,000 years – since the dawn of civilization. These boundaries include greenhouse gas emissions, the ozone layer, forests, freshwater and biodiversity. The researchers quantified the boundaries that influence Earth’s stability, and concluded in 2015 that four boundaries have been breached. But the boundary for chemicals was one of two boundaries that remained unquantified.

This new research takes this a step further. The researchers say there are many ways that chemicals and plastics have negative effects on planetary health, from mining, fracking and drilling to extract raw materials to production and waste management.

Some of these pollutants can be found globally, from the Arctic to Antarctica, and can be extremely persistent…Global production and consumption of novel entities is set to continue to grow. The total mass of plastics on the planet is now over twice the mass of all living mammals, and roughly 80% of all plastics ever produced remain in the environment. Plastics contain over 10,000 other chemicals, so their environmental degradation creates new combinations of materials – and unprecedented environmental hazards. Production of plastics is set to increase and predictions indicate that the release of plastic pollution to the environment will rise too, despite huge efforts in many countries to reduce waste.

Excerpt from Safe planetary boundary for pollutants, including plastics, exceeded, say researchers, Stockholm Resilience Center Press Release, Jan. 18, 2022

For an alternative view on planetary boundaries see NY Times Article, 2015

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