For the first time on Jan. 11, 2020, Chinese officials released the genetic sequence of the virus that causes COVID-19. Moderna, a biotechnology company, had utilized this knowledge to perfect the design of their vaccine by Jan. 13.
This contemporary scientific miracle, which reduced a procedure that had previously taken months or years to a matter of hours, was not a fluke. Significant advances in AI and machine learning, corporate investments in these technologies, and a research background based on decades of US government support in medical sciences and biotechnology made this possible. The biotechnology sector is undergoing a transformation, and the US government should take strong actions now to recognize the significant impact AI will have on the sector’s entire potential and ensuring the US remains at the forefront of the impending biotechnology revolution.
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Biology may now be programmed. Over the last two decades, dramatic reductions in the cost of DNA sequencing and synthesis have given scientists the capacity to read the code of life, and technologies like the CRISPR gene-editing tool have given them the power to change it. However, until recently, scientists’ capacity to read and write DNA has been limited by their lack of understanding of which genetic data causes which physical effects. They are finally gaining the ability to comprehend it because of AI.
Biology is complicated; billions of cells interact and instruct each other in humans alone. The information we have about cells and their interactions has been gathered through inefficient and time-consuming techniques. Traditionally, biological information has been obtained by empiricism or discovery, as well as the scientific method. It takes a lot of trial and error, and it’s exhausting.
The ability of AI to extract insights from enormous biological data sets is revolutionizing biology. Improved ways of reading biological data, such as DNA, RNA, and protein sequences and quantities, allow for the collection and storage of vast amounts of data regarding some of the tiniest biological structures and functional units. Advanced computational tools, like self-training AI algorithms, can examine this data in ways that human trial and error cannot, allowing for the quick discovery of subtle and unique patterns and biological activity. In essence, AI will assist humans in better understanding how biology works.
Better understanding enables biological modeling and prediction, allowing for a design, construct, and test methodology for generating biological products that are reproducible, less costly, more exact, and faster than ever before. AI allows us to test potential biological outcomes before constructing a product by providing better models of cells and bigger biological systems. This shifts the product development process from testing to engineering.
Furthermore, when scientists get a better grasp of how biology operates at its most fundamental level, they will be able to apply this knowledge to create new products with specialized functions. As computational power improves, we should expect further improvements in synthetic biology and a wider diversity of biological products.
Biotechnology advances are expected to have a direct economic effect of up to $4 trillion per year over the next ten years. AI will enable the manufacturing of novel materials, ranging from more sustainable and animal-free foods to cleaner fuels and synthetic organs, when combined with synthetic biology approaches. Biotechnology might also assist to strengthen our supply chains by allowing us to create raw materials for textiles, petroleum-free alternatives, and a variety of other consumer items such as home goods and electronics domestically rather than sourcing them globally. It might also be used to develop ecologically friendly fertilizers, increase our military’s readiness, and assist in the development of technologies to detect biological threats.
While the United States is now the world leader in biotechnology, China is aggressively pursuing that position and investing considerably in science and technology research and development in general. China placed second in the world in terms of R&D spending in 2018, with an estimated $463 billion — about 84 percent of overall R&D spending in the United States that year. China has begun the world’s largest precision medicine effort and is building one of the largest genomic databases in the world. BGI Group, the de facto national champion in genomics in China, has risen to the top of the industry in genetic sequencing and research. BGI may be acting as a global collection mechanism for Chinese government genetic databases, whether knowingly or unknowingly, and Chinese diplomats have urged world governments and individual U.S. states to purchase BGI-built COVID-19 testing kits, allowing BGI (and, by extension, the Chinese government) to analyze and retain the entire genome of everyone tested for COVID-19. In addition, BGI has researched issues that are in violation of many nations’ bioethical rules, such as the genetic foundation for the human intellect.
If the US loses its advantage in biotechnology research or manufacturing to China, it risks becoming reliant on China for vital resources and goods that will define the future economy, posing significant national security implications.
The United States’ AI and biotechnology programs should be viewed as mutually reinforcing, with both needing continued government emphasis and commitment. In its Final Report to Congress, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence specifically recommended that the US government not only raise the profile of biosecurity and biotechnology issues within the government but also invest in key biotechnology R&D platforms that will be critical for future national competitiveness.
By creating and implementing synthetic biology into the United States national security and defense arsenal, the US government should follow the commission’s recommendations. These measures will aid in the discussion of several issues, including recruiting investment, sustaining US competitiveness, teaching the next generation of bioengineers, controlling biological hazards, and integrating novel biological applications into the defense industrial base.
AI will drive the coming biotechnology revolution, which has the potential to create new threats and shifting geopolitical power structures while also facilitating dramatic improvements in energy and environmental sustainability, raw materials sourcing, supply chain resilience, food production, military readiness, biodefense, and human health. While the biotechnology revolution is still young and US leadership is still in control, the US should realize the linked nature of these technologies and mobilize.