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New Report on Arms Control and the Convergence of Biology and Emerging Technologies

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By Jaya Ramachandran

BERLIN | STOCKHOLM (IDN) – A new report has warned of the risks and challenges posed by the interaction of developments in biotechnology and advances in three emerging technologies: additive manufacturing (AM or so-called 3D printing), artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

The report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) cautions that the latest advances could increase the possibilities for the development, production and use of biological weapons. The existing biological arms control and non-proliferation governance framework, therefore, needs to be adapted to address the emerging security risks, says the report.

SIPRI report, ‘Bio Plus X: Arms Control and the Convergence of Biology and Emerging Technologies’, was presented at the international conference ‘2019. Capturing technology. Rethinking arms control’ at the German Federal Foreign Office in Berlin on March 15, 2019.

Automation is not a new concept for weapon systems. From the V-1 flying bombs of the Second World War to anti-personnel landmines, many weapons that are capable of carrying out various functions without the intervention of an operator – including navigation, arming and activation – have been created, deployed and used.

While definitions for such systems remain unsettled, autonomous weapons are generally considered to be systems that are capable of selecting and attacking a target without human intervention. Beyond the legal aspects, there are grave concerns over the moral and ethical issues raised by endowing machines with the discretion and power to end human life.

“Each of these technologies could, in its own way, facilitate the development, production and use of biological weapons, and make them more dangerous,” says Kolja Brockmann, Researcher at SIPRI and lead author of the report.

“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 optimize the transmissibility or virulence of a biological agent,” says Dr Vincent Boulanin, Senior Researcher at SIPRI on emerging technologies. 

All three technologies are difficult to control, particularly due to their digitization and their dual-use nature. “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,” says Dr Sibylle Bauer, Director of the SIPRI Armament and Disarmament programme. 

The report recommends that, in order to tackle the governance issues presented by emerging technologies, national governments need to monitor and assess developments in science and technology on a more systematic basis. They should also strengthen international efforts to foster responsible science and biosecurity awareness. In addition, the report suggests that the private sector should reinforce self-regulation and compliance standards.

The report recommends the following for national governments in multilateral contexts and international institutions:

Support the creation of a Biological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons – BTWC –Scientific Advisory Board: This could draw on the example of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the OPCW. The new board would convene experts from a broad range of fields to review on a regular basis advances in science and technology (not only those directly connected to biotechnology).

It would assess how these could have an impact on the development  and potential use of biological weapons. When appropriate, it could be tasked to suggest policies and practical measures to manage the associated risks and opportunities.

Reform elements of the BTWC: This could include developing new working practices in the BTWC that, for instance, would permit some decision-making during intersessional meetings and would enable different kinds of meeting report where consensus recommendations and proposals are prominently noted, but where those that do not achieve consensus are also clearly stated and acknowledged.

It could also involve increased stakeholder involvement in BTWC meetings and consultation with regard to developments in science and technology. It could further explore new mechanisms for building trust and managing perceptions of intent in biodefence. The role of the BTWC in developing guidelines on biological research with high potential for misuse could also be further strengthened.

Organize or sponsor events that would raise the issue of convergence and interconnectivity on the agenda of discussions on science and technology in the BTWC forums and the export control regimes. In addition to increasing awareness, these events (conference, workshops, side-events) would aim to strengthen institutional linkages between relevant international governance instruments, for instance by involving national experts. These events could bring in experts from other processes with relevant expertise (e.g. on AI, cybersecurity or robotics).

Initiate or support a discussion in relevant international forums on measures that could limit the misuse of commercial biotechnology. This could include discussing cybersecurity standards and customer-screening guidance for companies that provide laboratory services through the cloud.

At the EU level, enhance engagement with the biotechnology industry and biosafety associations in the context of dual-use risks. In addition, the requirements for self-assessment, research ethics and codes of conduct in EU funded projects could be further strengthened, including adequate guidance for their implementation. Moreover, the EU should invest in biosafety and biosecurity measures in the EU and globally through its financial instruments. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 March 2019]

Photo: The IAI Harop (or IAI Harpy 2) is a loitering munition developed by the MBT division of Israel Aerospace Industries. It is an anti-radiation drone that can autonomously home in on radio emissions. Rather than holding a separate high-explosive warhead, the drone itself is the main munition. CC BY 4.0.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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