Military innovations and potential misuses of developments in biology or chemistry can contribute to creating or enhancing instability and insecurity, as do digital warfare and disinformation. This can lead to tension or even conflict and pose a potential threat to peace, human well-being and the maintenance of international norms.
While parts of our research focus on threats arising from new technologies and developments in the natural sciences, we also look at the potential of these new technologies to improve arms control and make it more effective. In order to classify risks and chances in a scientifically sound manner, we integrate findings and expertise from the technical and natural sciences into the interdisciplinary discourse on peace and conflict research.
Beyond conducting fundamental research, we develop political options for action and recommendations for strengthening arms control.
The “Emerging Disruptive Technologies” research group addresses three key questions:
- How dangerous can new technological developments become from a security, ethical and legal perspective when they find their way into military use?
- How must verification measures be tailored to enable the effective control of modern military technologies?
- How can new technologies help develop more reliable arms control and verification measures?
In order to obtain robust answers, the group is pursuing an interdisciplinary research approach that combines political science with the natural sciences. Only the combination of different perspectives can answer what can be achieved politically (and with which actors), where technological pitfalls lie, and how they can be overcome—potentially, through technology itself. Therefore, the interdisciplinary approach promises effective approaches to strengthening arms control, which is currently in a severe crisis.
The group focuses on the future and looks primarily at technologies that are considered as emerging disruptive technologies—that is, technologies which are capable of overturning previous power structures and might allow weaker challengers to overtake the militaries of previously stronger players through innovations. These technologies include hypersonic missiles, military robotics, remotely piloted as well as autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems, nanotechnology, various forms of human enhancement, cyber operations, militarily used Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning, and even the military use of quantum computers.
Some of these technologies, such as hypersonic missiles, have already been deployed by at least some militaries. Other technologies, such as quantum computers, are still years or even decades away from being ready for deployment. For all of these technologies, traditional quantitative arms control efforts such as ceilings and limits are difficult or virtually impossible to implement.
For example, while the use of AI in weapon systems can force humans out of critical decision-making processes such as target selection or engagement, and the use of autonomy in crucial functions can give states a significant military advantage, the question of how AI in weapon systems can be controlled remains an open one. That being said, AI can also help make arms control more effective and objective under certain conditions, such as in the evaluation of imagery from inspections or when distinguishing between a seismic event and a nuclear weapons test. The new research group at PRIF will explore precisely this area of tension as its core task.
The research group on Chemical and Biological Weapons Control focuses on the role of scientific and technological (S&T) developments in biology, biotechnology, and chemistry in the non-proliferation and disarmament of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) as well as in enhancing chemical and biological security. Biology and chemistry have been advancing at an ever-increasing pace, supported in part by Artificial Intelligence and Additive Manufacturing, producing a number of innovations and developments for legitimate, beneficial and important objectives, including the treatment, prevention, and detection of diseases, and for industrial applications.
From an arms control, peace research and security perspective, however, some of these developments must be considered ambivalent. Some research activities and experiments, although designed for legitimate purposes, can still harbor significant risks if they are misused for the purpose of weaponization or handled unsafely. This concerns, for instance, some of what is known as “gain-of-function” research on pathogens and high-throughput screening for toxicity in novel chemical compounds, to highlight two particularly well publicized examples. Moreover, some S&T developments might one day be used directly to facilitate the development or covert acquisition of CBW. At the same time, S&T advances can also be helpful in strengthening the non-proliferation and disarmament of CBW and thus help maintain the existing international legal prohibitions against these weapons.
Based on natural science expertise and an interdisciplinary perspective, the research group will scrutinize these ambivalences and aims to develop realistic assessments of concrete risks and opportunities arising from S&T advances in selected areas of chemistry and biology as well as from the continuing convergence of the two sciences, and from developments in other disciplines such as Artificial Intelligence and Additive Manufacturing. Hence, the main research objectives of the group are:
- Tracking and analysis of relevant S&T developments
- Assessment of the potential for misuse of selected experiments and applications
- Strategies to counter disinformation related to CBW
- Assessment of opportunities to strengthen CBW control efforts, including:
- the verification of compliance with existing legal obligations
- the detection and identification of substances
- the exploration of reactivities of new substances of unknown risk potential
- the identification and investigation of possible CBW attacks
The use of artificial intelligence and algorithms is playing an ever-increasing role in both conventional and nuclear armaments, as well as in the discussions about chemical and biological weapons control. First, the use of increasingly complex computer programs and AI is leading to a huge increase in military performance. Second, in biology, biotechnology, and chemistry, algorithms and AI are now being used for a wide range of legitimate and useful research and development activities, which simultaneously might increase the potential for misuse. At the same time, however, the use of AI is also creating new opportunities to make arms control more effective. The same holds true for additive manufacturing.
Against this background, CNTR considers the topics of artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing not as separate research areas, but by integrating them into the two research groups as cross-cutting topics in a synergetic and interdisciplinary manner.