A bunch of leading scientists has launched a voluntary initiative outlining a set of values, principles, and commitments for AI protein design. 

The letter discusses the potential misuse of AI tools able to designing recent proteins with unprecedented speed and efficiency. 

While AI holds immense promise for addressing pressing global challenges, from pandemic response to sustainable energy solutions, it also raises questions on the opportunity of malicious use, resembling creating novel bioweapons.

While the proteins designed by DeepMind’s AlphaFold system and later by researchers on the University of Washington School of Medicine demonstrated high affinity and specificity to their intended targets, there’s at all times the chance that these proteins could interact with other molecules within the body in unexpected ways. 

This may lead to hostile unwanted effects and even the event of recent diseases.

Another risk is the potential for misuse or malicious use of this technology. Just as AI-designed proteins might be used to create highly targeted therapies, they may even be engineered to cause harm. 

For example, a malicious actor could potentially design a protein that targets a selected ethnic group or exploits a specific genetic vulnerability. This highlights the necessity for robust security measures and ethical guidelines to forestall the misuse of this technology.

As David Baker, a computational biophysicist on the University of Washington and a key figure behind the initiative, notes, “The query was: how, if in any way, should protein design be regulated and what, if any, are the hazards?”

The 100+ signatories consider that “the advantages of current AI technologies for protein design far outweigh the potential for harm” but recognize the necessity for a proactive approach to risk management because the technology advances. 

AI for biology has the potential to assist solve a few of crucial problems facing our society. Scientific openness shall be critical for our field to progress. As scientists engaged on this work, with greater than 90 signatories internationally, we’re advancing a framework… pic.twitter.com/4m81j87Vo9

— Alex Rives (@alexrives) March 8, 2024

The letter states that “given anticipated advances on this field, a brand new proactive risk management approach could also be required to mitigate the potential of developing AI technologies that might be misused, intentionally or otherwise, to cause harm.”

A superb idea for safety in protein design (AI powered or not): regulate and control the protein synthesis machines and firmware, not the AI research itself.
This is an idea I promoted on the UK AI Safety Summit. https://t.co/skcUUcgG5a

— Yann LeCun (@ylecun) March 8, 2024

As a part of the initiative, researchers articulated a set of values and principles to guide the responsible development of AI technologies in protein design.

These include “safety, security, equity, international collaboration, openness, responsibility, and pursuing research for the advantage of society.” The signatories have also voluntarily agreed to a set of specific, actionable commitments informed by these values and principles.

One key aspect of the initiative focuses on improving the screening of DNA synthesis, an important step in translating AI-designed proteins into physical molecules. 

The scientists commit to “obtain DNA synthesis services only from providers that show adherence to industry-standard biosecurity screening practices, which seek to detect hazardous biomolecules before they might be manufactured.”

AI’s advances in medicine and biotechnology have been quite incredible, resulting in recent antibiotics and anti-aging drugs.

To drive these findings forward, the signatories commit to “work collaboratively with stakeholders from world wide” and “refrain from research more likely to result in overall harm or enable misuse of our technologies.”

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