Counterproliferation in the age of AI

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Just 20 years ago, Spanish naval personnel operating in the Arabian Sea intercepted a merchant ship bound for the port of Aden from North Korea. Acting on a tip-off from their US counterparts, the interdiction team discovered a shipment of Scud missiles hidden on board, So San. At the time, Washington’s concern was that Scud missiles were being built for Iraq and preparations were underway in the region for an ill-fated coalition intervention against Saddam Hussein’s forces.

With no legal basis to seize the cargo, the Spanish team could do little more than leave So San And let the missiles go after receiving assurances from the Yemeni government that they will not be transferred to any third party. Since then, the international community has realized the need for a new architecture for counterproliferation.

This was followed by the establishment of a landmark international policy aimed at controlling the spread of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-effect explosive (CBRNE) technologies: the Proliferation Security Initiative, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Over the past two decades, the initiative has strengthened a coalition of more than 106 countries committed to preventing the proliferation of CBRNE.

However, much has changed in the geopolitical and technological landscape since the heady days of the 2000s. While the war on terror has focused on non-state actors and isolated ‘axis of evil’, great-power competition has returned to the focus of international security. And although missile components and dual-use centrifuges are still poached, nonproliferation is still associated with smuggled materials just as easily. This is especially true with the tools of dual-use chemistry and synthetic biology.

In the same year So San Incidentally, a group of scientists created the first completely synthetic virus, a chemically synthesized form of polio. Three years later, reverse genetics was used to recreate H1N1 ‘Spanish’ influenza, which killed more than 50 million people in the years following World War I. Since then, poxviruses, coronaviruses, avian flu, and many other pathogens have been revived, expanded, or changed into forms that can evade herd immunity or render established medical immunity obsolete. The technology used to create these infectious agents is far smaller than anything recently banned on the high seas: whole genome sequencers that can be held in the palm of one’s hand, chemical reagents that can be ordered online, and many other products that prevent it. No need to take on a slow moving vessel.

In the past year, the life sciences have been further turbocharged by the latest chapter of technological advancement: the new emerging platform of artificial intelligence. With the debut of novel big-language models in late 2022, the public has seen small previews of how those with malicious intent might apply AI tools to CBRNE. An exercise in Massachusetts showed that a large language model could help students create synthetic versions of the causative agents of smallpox, influenza, Nipah virus and other diseases without any scientific training. Elsewhere, researchers using generative AI for drug discovery have found that they can also design a range of neural components with VX. There has also been talk of integrating AI into nuclear launch systems, a kind of digital dead hand for the new era. All of these are joined by several articles on AI-enabled high-performance munitions, including fire-and-forget hypersonic missiles, autonomous loitering munitions, and unmanned attack vehicles.

While there is much debate over the existential risks posed by AI platforms, some have argued that these concerns are either unspecific or alarming. We, the authors, are investigating precisely how AI can accelerate the proliferation of CBRNE and how such applications can be realistically controlled. To this end, we will seek expert opinions on how generative AI can reduce information barriers to CBRNE proliferation or add new capabilities to existing weapon systems. As both researchers and practitioners, our concerns are primarily related to human safety and what can be done to protect international public health. We hope to understand how counterproliferation professionals are facing this new era and what new concepts will be needed to protect human life and prosperity.

Next year, Australia will host the Proliferation Security Initiative’s Asia-Pacific exercise rotation, Pacific Protector. AI and its underlying technology: Air force and naval assets will be deployed across a vast expanse of ocean at a time of heightened tension at a site in the middle of the Taiwan Strait. While this exercise will have many lasting uses that will benefit the Asia-Pacific, it is undeniable that the task of countering CBRNE proliferation has fundamentally changed since the initiative’s inception.

States, non-state actors and individuals now have access to technologies and information tools that used to be the stuff of science fiction. How policymakers, researchers, and practitioners deal with weapons proliferation in the new era of AI will have long-term implications for human security in the region and around the world.

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