Digital disruption poses risk to biological weapons control

Talal Husseini 15 March 2019 (Last Updated March 15th, 2019 11:46)

A new report commissioned by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has suggested that advancements in emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing (3D printing), and robotics, may lead to increased proliferation of biological weapons.

Digital disruption poses risk to biological weapons control
A new SIPRI report has warned that advancements in emerging technologies could lead to the increased production and use of biological weapons. Credit: US Marine Corps/Salvador R Moreno.

A new report commissioned by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has suggested that advancements in emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing (3D printing), and robotics, may lead to increased proliferation of biological weapons.

Biological weapons include a wide range of devices, from aircraft spray tanks used for anti-access/area denial operations, to handhold aerosol devices for personal protection, such as mace.

SIPRI senior researcher on emerging technologies Dr Vincent Boulanin said: “The increased use of robots in laboratories could lead to significant gains in productivity during the design-build-test cycle of biological weapons, while artificial intelligence could be used to find new ways to optimise the transmissibility or virulence of a biological agent.”

Automating previously manual process could potentially lead to the rapid development of bioweapons without proper oversight or analysis of the system by a human. The large amount of digitised data on biological warfare that is created also opens up systems to potential cyberattacks.

The report, titled ‘BIO PLUS X: Arms Control and the Convergence of Biology and Emerging Technologies’, said: “Scientific advances have also made it theoretically possible to create entirely novel biological weapons in a number of ways; by synthetically creating or recreating existing, extinct or entirely new pathogens: by modifying the immune system, nervous system, genome or microbiome; by weaponizing ‘gene drives’ that could rapidly and cheaply spread harmful genes through animal and plant populations; and by delivering pathogens and biological systems by novel means.”

Updating legal frameworks on biological weapons

The report advocates for a revision of the current non-proliferation governance framework to address digitally disruptive technologies, which are currently difficult to legislate due to their innovative nature, multiple uses, and their development mainly from within the private sector.

In order to address the development of biological weapons, the report says that national governments need to monitor technological advancements more routinely and strengthen international cooperation on biosecurity awareness. The private sector should also impose stronger rules of on bioweapons production and compliance with relevant law, according to the report.

“A key challenge for effective biological arms control is that treaty structures and the institutional arrangements in ministries and government agencies do not correspond to today’s technical realities.”

One of the main issues is that the central international framework for controlling biological weapons is the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which is now almost 50 years old.

While a range of additional regulatory measure have been taken since its creation, for example to deal with export and import control measures, biosecurity and biosafety standards, and the transportation of dangerous goods regulation, the scope of existing legislation is limited to only a few indirect applications of additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence and robotics.

SIPRI armament and disarmament programme director Dr Sibylle Bauer said: “A key challenge for effective biological arms control is that treaty structures and the institutional arrangements in ministries and government agencies do not correspond to today’s technical realities.”

The SIPRI report is being presented today at the ‘Capturing technology. Rethinking arms control’ international conference in Germany.