Disease warfare, lab leaks and AI misuse could be deadlier than COVID pandemic – study

Disease warfare, leaks of dangerous pathogens from labs and misuse of artificial intelligence could be much more dangerous than the COVID pandemic, a report has warned.

The UK government should now be making "serious efforts" to guard against such "extreme risks", say the authors of the Future Proof study.

They warn such threats have the potential for huge loss of life globally – and at their worst could even "lead to the premature extinction of humanity".

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There is a one in six "Russian roulette" chance of an "existential catastrophe over the next one hundred years", according to one of the report’s lead authors.

Oxford and Cambridge University researchers worked on the study for The Centre for Long-Term Resilience and say it is a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" for the UK to beef up its protections.

Biological weapons and laboratory leaks are highlighted as the most urgent risk, with the report saying they could bring "even worse consequences than naturally occurring pandemics like COVID-19".

While biotechnology has great benefits, there are also said to be "harrowing prospects" for misuse.

A new biosecurity leadership council and the screening of all DNA syntheses for dangerous pathogens are among the study’s recommendations.

It comes as a once-fringe theory that the current pandemic was caused by a leak from a lab in Wuhan, China, is gaining more credibility after President Biden asked intelligence agencies to investigate.

Artificial intelligence is marked as the second most-urgent "extreme risk" in the report.

Rather than far-off "Terminator"-style doomsday scenarios, it says even the widespread deployment of current AI capabilities "could lead or contribute to extreme risks".

Accidents and malicious use of AI become more of a risk as it becomes increasingly common in "safety-critical" technology such as self-driving cars and military equipment, says the report.

It calls for measures such as improved oversight and progress in tracking AI research, and an update to the Ministry of Defence’s definition of "lethal autonomous weapons".

The UK’s electricity grid is also identified as at risk from a natural or human threat. Perishables such as food and medicine could expire if it is compromised and communication networks could go down, according to the report.

The authors make a number of recommendations and provide a costed roadmap for tackling the risks in the government’s upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.

Toby Ord, one of the lead authors and a senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, said: "By my estimate, the likelihood of the world experiencing an existential catastrophe over the next one hundred years is one in six – Russian Roulette.

"We cannot survive many centuries operating at a level of extreme risk like this.

"The government needs to make serious efforts now to increase our resilience to these threats. Future Proof provides a roadmap to do just that."

Angus Mercer, head of the Centre for Long-Term Resilience, said the recovery from the pandemic was the ideal time to take action.

"The government has already committed to producing an AI strategy, a National Resilience Strategy and a biosecurity review," he said. "It must put resilience to extreme risks at the very heart of these new policies."

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