This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

Technological advances in the biological sciences have long presented a challenge to the governance frameworks that focus on biosecurity and preventing the proliferation of biological weapons.

Advances in biotechnology have, for example, made the manipulation of the genetic make-up of organisms—from bacteria to humans— faster, cheaper and easier.

However, these developments often interact with or are enabled by other technologies, including by those categorized as ‘emerging’.

The process of convergence of recent developments in biotechnology with other emerging technologies holds tremendous promise but also increases the possibilities for misuse of biotechnology.

Specifically, the convergence of technological developments could affect the development, production or use of biological weapons and thereby challenge governance approaches that aim to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons to both states and non-state actors.

The report, Bio Plus X: Arms Control and the Convergence of Biology and Emerging Technologies, examines the risks and challenges posed by this convergence.

Governance mechanisms

It analyses the extent to which concerns arising from new technological developments can be dealt with through existing governance mechanisms, and, based on the limitations identified, the authors recommend the actions needed by governments, international organizations, the private sector, and wider society.

Advances in three specific emerging technologies—additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics—could facilitate, each in their own way, the development or production of biological weapons and their delivery systems. This could be by enabling the automation of developmental or production steps that previously required manual manipulation or analysis by a human.

They could also provide new possibilities for biological weapon use and increase the exposure of digitized biological data and operating parameters to cyberattacks.

All three technologies are difficult to control, not least due to their dual-use nature, their digitization, and the fact that they are mainly developed by the civilian and private sectors.

However, the impact of these technologies on the engineering of biological weapons and their delivery systems should not be exaggerated, as the expertise required to exploit these technologies for the purpose of developing and producing biological weapons remains significant and continues to pose a barrier to most actors.

Limited coverage

The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) is the central governance instrument for biological arms control. It is complemented by—or implemented through—a whole range of instruments, including export and import control measures; legislation, guidelines or standards on biosecurity and biosafety; regulations for the transportation of dangerous goods; and mechanisms to monitor relevant technological developments.

However, the existing governance mechanisms provide only limited and often indirect coverage of the applications of AM, AI and robotics. The governance frameworks either have not used, or cannot fully use, their potential to explore connections between biotechnology and these emerging technologies.

Treaty regimes and other governance instruments typically interact with each other much less than the respective technologies that they cover. An overarching question when viewing governance in the field of biosecurity through the lens of technological development and convergence is therefore how to better connect the relevant governance mechanisms.

There is a lack of understanding of these technologies, the associated risks and their potential impact on the activities, transfers or behaviour governed by the existing frameworks.

Dealing with developments in science and technology is far from a new issue. However, measures to address their impact must keep up with the dynamics of current developments. Therefore, improvements to governance instruments need to address the structural factors and new characteristics of new technologies that have a possibly significant impact through convergence with biotechnology.

Addressing the risks

The main conclusion is that, while new developments in these three emerging technologies could have an enabling effect in different steps of the development and use of biological weapons, the existing governance frameworks are ill-equipped to comprehensively address these risks.

To improve the ability to govern the convergence of biotechnology with other emerging technologies, concrete steps could be taken by national governments, regional organizations such as the European Union (EU) and international institutions, and by academia, the private sector and the DIY community.

National governments should more systematically assess technological developments, map domestic stakeholders, make use of parliamentary assessment mechanisms, increase resources for relevant authorities, and strengthen research on the detection, prevention, response and attribution of biological incidents.

Academic institutions should introduce obligatory courses on ethics, law and biosafety in all natural science curriculums

The EU should enhance engagement with the biotechnology industry and biosafety associations in the context of dual-use risks. The BTWC regime should reform some of its elements, including its working practices and stakeholder engagement, and create a BTWC Scientific Advisory Board. It could also raise the issue of convergence on its agenda and better address the potential for misuse of commercial biotechnology and emerging technologies.

Academic institutions should introduce obligatory courses on ethics, law and biosafety in all natural science curriculums, encourage work on interdisciplinary technology assessments and further strengthen the collaboration between national academies of sciences, particularly on addressing risks resulting from technological convergence.

The private sector should continuously strengthen its self-governance and compliance standards. The DIY community could organize workshop series on biosecurity for community laboratories and strengthen international efforts to foster responsible science and biosecurity awareness.

Bio Plus X: Arms Control and the Convergence of Biology and Emerging Technologies, Kolja Brockmann, Sibylle Bauer, and Vincent Boulanin, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute