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Dual Use of AI-powered Drug Discovery


In less than six hours after being launched on the researchers' in-house server, the model generated 40,000 molecules that scored within the desired threshold.

Credit: Michelle Marconi

The Swiss Federal Institute for NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) Protection —Spiez Laboratory— convenes the 'convergence' conference series1 set up by the Swiss government to identify developments in chemistry, biology and enabling technologies that may have implications for the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions. Meeting every two years, the conferences bring together an international group of scientific and disarmament experts to explore the current state of the art in the chemical and biological fields and their trajectories, to think through potential security implications and to consider how these implications can most effectively be managed internationally. The meeting convenes for three days of discussion on the possibilities of harm, should the intent be there, from cutting-edge chemical and biological technologies. Our drug discovery company received an invitation to contribute a presentation on how AI technologies for drug discovery could potentially be misused.

Risk of misuse

The thought had never previously struck us. We were vaguely aware of security concerns around work with pathogens or toxic chemicals, but that did not relate to us; we primarily operate in a virtual setting. Our work is rooted in building machine learning models for therapeutic and toxic targets to better assist in the design of new molecules for drug discovery. We have spent decades using computers and AI to improve human health—not to degrade it. We were naive in thinking about the potential misuse of our trade, as our aim had always been to avoid molecular features that could interfere with the many different classes of proteins essential to human life. Even our projects on Ebola and neurotoxins, which could have sparked thoughts about the potential negative implications of our machine learning models, had not set our alarm bells ringing.

From Nature Machine Intelligence
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