Mustafa Suleyman, the billionaire co-founder of Google DeepMind AI technology, recently voiced concerns on the potential for a pandemic created by AI and genetic engineering to be one of the greatest threats facing the globe. During an episode of “Diary of a CEO” podcast, he warned against this possible danger.
Suleyman suggested that the prospect of engineering a virus as virulent as the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) could become commonplace by the end of this decade.
Suleyman noted that in the next five years or so, it could be possible for a regular person to download instructions for a pandemic that may be more severe than anything previously experienced.
He stressed the importance of containment, as access to AI and genetic engineering tools and knowledge should be limited due to the potential risk posed by experimentation with hazardous materials.
It is difficult to turn anthrax into a weapon of mass destruction, but it is possible to grow the bacteria in a lab and distribute small quantities piecemeal, even through the mail. Norman Cheville, Dean of Iowa State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, notes that growing anthrax is relatively easy; it can even be done overnight.
While purchasing anthrax over the internet is not an option due to its dangerous nature, experimenting with it still poses a potential risk.
Prior to the mid-1990s, the United States government lacked detailed records of who was sharing and selling samples of potentially dangerous bacteria, such as anthrax.
In the mid-1980s, prior to the Persian Gulf War, American Type Culture Collection – a not-for-profit biological supply company – sold three strains of anthrax to Iraq; some have asserted that these bacteria were used by Iraq to produce biological weapons.
In 1995, Larry Wayne Harris pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud after he had obtained three vials of bubonic plague from American Type by falsifying university letterhead. He was an associate of Aryan Nations – a white supremacist organization – and claimed that he cultivated anthrax by taking samples from a 20-year-old burial site for cattle that had perished due to this disease.
In 1996, Congress took steps to ensure the safety of citizens by introducing legislation that strictly limits interstate shipment of anthrax and other pathogenic strains.
Researchers must obtain a license from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before they can work with anthrax, while shippers must inform the government when they send an anthrax sample and researchers must acknowledge receipt.
In light of recent advances in genetic engineering tools which could potentially create new synthetic pandemic pathogens, access to such materials must be restricted.
When discussing the future of genetic engineering, Suleyman cautioned that the most dire scenario is one in which people experiment with synthetic pathogens, potentially leading to them being either accidentally or intentionally more transmissible. He added that they could become faster-spreading and deadlier as well.
Additionally, Suleyman noted that advanced AI technology is becoming increasingly accessible due to its openness; this has been occurring at a rate which many view as alarming.
This means that anyone can gain access to the technology, which could be used for malicious purposes such as cheating on exams or creating a virus that could have devastating global consequences.
To mitigate these risks, it is essential to develop an international treaty with countries such as Russia and China, in order to limit the use of advanced artificial intelligence and genetic modification.
More on this to come.