Scientists asses risks of creating chemical weapons ‘in the garage’

Scientists asses risks of creating chemical weapons ‘in the garage’

Vladislav Strekopytov

Artificial intelligence experts have conceded that drug development software could be used to create chemical weapons. About whether open software is capable of issuing a formula for a chemical warfare agent – in the material of RIA Novosti.
Dual use drugs
The Swiss Federal Institute for Defense against Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons (Spitz Laboratory) is one of five institutions in the wo-rld certified by the Orga-nization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Every two years, a scientific conference “Converg-ence” is held here. The for-um is dedicated to reviewing the latest advances in chemistry, biology and re-lated technologies that cou-ld potentially be used for the production of chemical and biological weapons.
In 2021, the organizers asked specialists from the American pharmaceutical software company Collaborations Pharmaceuticals to prepare a special report on the risks of using artificial intelligence to create new types of biochemical weapons.
The company recently completed the development of a digital generator of act-ive molecular compounds for new drugs MegaSyn. As a limiting parameter embedded in the model, the authors took the level of toxicity – the destructive effect on proteins necessary for the life of the organism. In the new study, scientists changed the logic by setting both parameters as targets: biological activity and high toxicity.
The search was conducted only in public databases of molecules for the production of drugs. And the model itself was built on the basis of open source software. At the same time, the method of machine learning was used, “acquainting” artificial intelligence with some types of biochemical weapons of mass destruction. Such, for example, as VX – the most toxic organophosphorus chemical warfare nerve agent, as well as Novichok.
To the surprise of scientists, in less than six hours the program generated abo-ut 40,000 molecules that corresponded to the specified minimum toxicity threshold. Among them were already known chemical warfare agents, including VX, and many new ones that surpass it in toxicity. Some of the chemical properties were significantly different from traditional neurotoxins, more reminiscent of pesticides, environmental industrial toxins and drugs. This suggests that it is theoretically possible to develop not just new types, but entire classes of chemical weapons.
Aarm call
Artificial intelligence created virtual molecules with ease, therefore, turning them into real ones is only a matter of technology. This greatly disturbed the scientists. They called their experiment “computational confirmation of the possibility of creating biochemical weapons” by synthesizing known molecules. And for this, in their opinion, specialists with deep knowledge in the field of chemistry and toxicology are not needed.
“Thanks to the current breakthrough research in the field of autonomous synthesis, the full cycle of development and production of not only drugs, but also deadly chemical weapons is becoming available with little or no human participation,” the authors write.
Scientists prudently did not go further than virtual simulation. They did not try to synthesize the compounds proposed by the program and certainly did not publish their list. And they didn’t even describe the method, which is usually necessary for serious scientific articles. The researchers simply showed that artificial intelligence can be turned against a person at any time.
For example, scientists drew an analogy with third-generation natural language generators GPT-3. They are used to create not only chat bots and voice assistants, b-ut also so-called deepfakes – audio and video messages that pass off as the words of real people. Algorithms for some GPT-3 models are available in the public domain.
Officially, all chemical warfare agents fall under the 1993 Chemical Weapo-ns Convention, which has 192 signatories. And the activities for its destruction are controlled by the Orga-nization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The development, production, accumulation, acquisition or sale of chemical, biological, toxin, as well as any other type of weapons of mass destruction prohibited by an international treaty, is being persecuted throughout the world. In particular, Article 355 of the Criminal Code is in force in Russia, according to which such a crime is punishable by imprisonment of up to ten years.
According to scientists, the main threat does not come from specific countries or statesmen. Governments have hardly used poisonous agents in regular combat since the First World War. And there are good reasons for that. Bombs, shells and missiles are more reliable, easier to store, transport and use. In addition, it is more difficult to protect your own soldiers from chemical weapons.
The danger is that terrorist organizations can take advantage of artificial intelligence. They don’t even need to create new species: just enter the parameters of VX or Sarin into the program, and the model will show from which components they can be obtained. Although it is most likely impossible to do without the help of specialists.
“As in the case of many other scientific developments, it can be used both for good – the development of new drugs, and for evil – the creation of new types of chemical weapons,” explains Artem Oganov, professor at Skoltech and Moscow Institute of Science and Technology, full member of the European Academy, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the American Physical Society.” Artificial intelligence methods really make it possible to predict the properties of molecules and choose among them both the least toxic and the most dangerous. But using and especially writing such programs requires good preparation and long work. Another task is to obtain a predicted molecule. It is a completely solvable problem, but a serious scientific level is also needed here.”
In bad hands
There are examples of situations when chemical warfare agents fell into the hands of terrorists in history. On March 20, 1995, representatives of the neo-religious sect Aum Shinrikyo committed a terrorist attack in the Tokyo subway using sarin. They used sealed bags with a liquid substance, which were pierced inside several cars. Poisoned by poison fumes, 13 people died. About six thousand more received intoxication of various degrees of severity. If sarin had been sprayed in the form of an aerosol, there would have been many more victims, experts say.
Repeatedly terrorists in different countries tried to use ricin. This protein poison of plant origin is six times more toxic than potassium cyanide, but it is very easy to extract from castor beans or cake left after castor oil. That is, it is perhaps the most accessible of all toxic substances.
So, in 2001, the press reported that instructions for making ricin were found at the destroyed base of Al-Qaeda in Kabul. In 2003, a certain amount of this substance was found on terrorists in London and in a storage cell at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. In 2013, Mississippi State Police detained several people for attempting to send ricin letters to President Barack Obama and other US dignitaries. Ricin is literally a biochemical weapon. By destroying bonds in the RNA of ribosomes, it blocks the synthesis of vital proteins, and the cells of the body die. During World War II, the UK conducted research that led to the creation of a prototype ricin bomb. The most famous case of the use of this toxin is the elimination of the Bulgarian dissident Georgy Markov by the special services: he was poisoned in 1978 with the help of an injection in the leg with a specially designed umbrella. The dose administered to Markov was, according to experts, no more than 0.45 milligrams.

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