Debate of the Week: Is biotech getting too powerful?
THE NEWS: A new program could tackle global problems like famine and pollution, say awed scientists. But some fear the risks far outweigh the rewards.
Most of the time, human knowledge advances at a glacial pace, with frequent false starts and setbacks. But every so often, there is a single moment that revolutionises what we know about the world. One of these moments occurred last week, when AI company DeepMind announced that it had worked out the shape of almost every protein known to science.
Mapping out these proteins was a colossal task for DeepMind’s AlphaFold AI programme, which it has been training on the task for the last five years.
Previously, we had only mapped the structures of around one million proteins from 10,000 species. AlphaFold has now worked out the structures of 200 million proteins from about one million species.
This will have far-reaching effects. Researchers have already used AlphaFold models to determine the structure of a protein that plays a key role in causing malaria, one of the deadliest diseases on the planet. Now they can use this to start developing vaccines.
Some proteins, known as enzymes, act as catalysts for chemical reactions. With some small modifications, we might be able to produce enzymes capable of digesting waste products that are not biodegradable or recyclable.
But this research could also do enormous damage in the wrong hands. Protein-mapping AI could be used to produce biological weapons. Enzymes could be programmed to be extremely harmful to human life.
Even if it is not used for weapons, some fear that biotech could still end up killing us by accident. Disease researchers can use biotech to create genetically-enhanced viruses.
These viruses might be more virulent or more toxic than the usual strains. If they escape from the labs in which they are being studied, they could cause catastrophic pandemics.
Is biotech getting too powerful?
While scientists are trying to use biotech for good, it can have too many unintended consequences. We need to slow the pace of discovery until we can work out how to contain the risks.
Every day, people are dying from diseases biotech could cure. It would be deeply irresponsible to slow the pace of discovery when so many people are desperately in need.
You cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Biotech is getting cheaper and more advanced, and it would be futile to try to stop it or slow it down. Instead, we need to focus on putting together strong safety procedures.
DeepMind- A British AI company that is a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Protein- Large biomolecules made of up amino acids, which in turn are made up of DNA. AlphaFold- An AI programme created by DeepMind. It is a deep learning system, meaning that it can be taught how to draw patterns in a similar way to the human brain. Malaria- An infectious disease spread by mosquitoes. It causes more than half a million deaths a year, mostly in poorer countries. Biological weapons- A microbe or toxic substance that causes substantial harm to humans and can be used in warfare.