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Biotechnology has now advanced to the stage where it is not only possible to synthesise a DNA sequence of your choice in the lab, but to mail-order it from commercial DNA synthesis companies. This has huge benefits for research in the life sciences but it has also raised concerns about misuse.

Researchers have already recreated viruses such as polio, horsepox, Spanish flu and SARS. With the rise of cloud laboratories, it is also possible for someone without a lab of their own to conduct experiments to help design and test DNA sequences.

Previously, a barrier for the misuse of synthetic DNA has been the biological knowledge required to design it but advances in the field of artificial intelligence means that this knowledge may not be necessary for much longer. There have already been some publications in this direction.

The world is still hurting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Another pandemic engineered via the use of AI to be more virulent and transmissable would be devastating and may even pose a global catastrophic biological risk. How to prevent this happening is an important problem.

This topic came out fifth in my decision matrix for deciding what to work on next based on impact and how well it matches my skills and interests. I am spending one day on each of my top 5 topics to learn a bit more before choosing which to focus on:

  1. AI for translating unseen languages
  2. Extraterrestrial technosignatures
  3. Recognising AI sentience
  4. Exoplanet biosignatures
  5. AI misuse: pathogenic DNA

Work in this field is an almost perfect match for my background (molecular biology, genomics and AI) but after reading up about it I have decided I am not comfortable with the potential misuse of my own research on this, given my focus on making all my output open and accessible to all!