In 2018, scientist He Jiankui shocked the world by using CRISPR, a genome editing technology, to deactivate a gene, making twin girls immune to HIV. This sparked concerns about the ethical implications of gene editing, including a rise in genetic therapies, enhancements, and even eugenics. While the initial shock and discussions regarding the future of gene editing have waned, we now find ourselves in a new age of artificial intelligence where once hypothetical possibilities pose a real threat. The rapid pace at which technology is improving exceeds our ability to fully comprehend associated threats, including the potential for an international crisis: a genetic arms race.
Cold War: Biological Arms Race
A lesser-known feature of the Cold War between the United States and the USSR was a biological weapons (BW) race, in which both nations invested in creating large stockpiles of biological munitions. However, a US Army-led secret field trial involving BW stimulants released from aircrafts revealed that biological weapons had the power to inflict widespread harm on large populations. Nixon acknowledged that such weapons in the hands of hostile countries posed a serious threat to international diplomacy. He therefore decided to channel efforts exclusively into a defensive research and development program, strategically positioning the United States to safeguard against possible Soviet BW agents. By halting rapid BW development, the United States deterred what could have become a catastrophic race. However, we may see a resurgence of a biological weapons race between the United States and China as technology rapidly advances.
In 2015, China announced its “Made in China 2025” initiative, designating biotechnology as a key focus for substantial government investment. The goal was to transform China into a global manufacturing competitor in high-tech industries and win the international race in creating gene-based medicines. A year later, China announced a $9 billion project to reach its goals by collecting and analyzing a large amount of genetic data. To create and bring gene-editing-based medicines into the market, China began ramping up acquisition efforts and funding to collect DNA from around the globe.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 became China’s gateway into a library of genetic data. BGI Group, a Chinese-based genomics company, gave 20 countries, including Canada, South Africa, and Serbia, the Fire-Eye portable lab, which is capable of detecting COVID-19 from small genetic fragments. Fire-Eye not only had the power to decipher the genetic code of viruses but also the genetic code of human DNA.
The coordinator of the Serbian-based laboratory Jelena Begovic confirmed that the Fire-Eye lab was a source of demographic information for the Chinese-based genomic company regarding the region. BGI said that its “mission is, and has always been, using genomics to benefit people’s health and wellbeing,” denying ownership by the Chinese government. However, this does not prevent the government from accessing data due to a national intelligence law that mandates companies to share proprietary information obtained in foreign nations upon request. As a result, any data collected through BGI is accessible to the Chinese government.
China's expanding global reach has raised US concerns over its edge in the biomedical field and national security. The 2020 US-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s Report to Congress expressed caution, stating that Fire-Eye labs allowed the company to gain access to global health data, providing Chinese researchers with a whole database of information “to serve Chinese ambitions to dominate the biotech market.” Additionally, The National Counterintelligence and Security Center released a report declaring China’s database of healthcare and DNA data a serious risk to privacy and the economic and national security of the United States. Curtailing the influence of China, a long-standing rival, has been a main focus for the United States as they fear for their national security as well as their competitive advantage in biomedics and genetic engineering.
"We're essentially in the beginnings of a Cold War," the Director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society said, warning of “a downward slide into something increasingly adversarial with China." A global health expert said, “The COVID war between the US and China is looking like a race to the moon,” drawing comparisons with the United States and Soviet space race.
AI and New Technology
Today, rapid advancements in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning models, have made advanced genetic weapons more accessible, yet equally dangerous as nuclear weapons. Technological advancements are expanding possibilities to efficiently and affordably gather and analyze genetic information, making them an indispensable tool for research. AI and machine learning can process, sort, and help identify connections between genetic data and other extensive datasets such as chemical structures. With high-performance computing and cloud computing also on the rise, scientists may be able to generate the computational power needed to further analyze and store data. Taken together, such breakthroughs give access to easier, cheaper, and low-risk opportunities, opening doors to new possibilities such as identifying genetic targets with greater precision.
US government advisors suggest that China’s large databases of genetic information can be analyzed through AI, giving China an easier path to economic and military advantages over the United States. The US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence cautioned against China’s goals to lead in both biotechnology and AI, an intersection that presents a unique threat, and encouraged the United States to boost funding for its own research. A senior US intelligence official told the Washington Post that “If China can become the sole or main supplier of an important new medicine or technology, they will gain leverage…If China acquires a critical mass of data—and if they are able to analyze and exploit the data — they can co-opt the future.”
Why Does This Matter?
The US Intelligence Community noted in a Worldwide Threat Assessment that research in genome editing increases the risk of creating harmful biological agents. This is because AI has the potential to solve two challenges: weaponization feasibility (availability and effectiveness) and control (precision and containment).
A significant concern arises from the potential misuse of genetic engineering to target specific ethnic groups. Biological weapons that target ethnically homogenous groups in warfare could lead to large-scale genocides. This becomes most concerning for minority groups, who already face a number of human rights abuses. For example, Tibetians and Uyghur Muslims in China are already subject to arbitrary DNA collection. According to Human Rights Watch, reports have revealed that the police are taking blood samples and conducting iris scans of children and local residents in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Using genetic information, scientists could identify if a particular group is more vulnerable than others to a naturally occurring agent and potentially exploit this knowledge for targeting purposes.
Today, many experts believe that biological warfare is not feasible and will not be for many years. However, with rapid advancements in AI and technology, this possibility should not be overlooked. The convergence of gene-editing technologies and AI demands international cooperation, ethical discourse, and regulatory frameworks to address the challenges of new technological innovation.