Nations Must Collaborate on AI and Biotech—or Be Left Behind


(The RAND Blog)

Modern medical research laboratory, photo by Gorodenkoff/Adobe Stock

Photo by Gorodenkoff/Adobe Stock

by Sana Zakaria and Timothy Marler

October 31, 2023

Artificial intelligence is a hot topic as the UK's AI Safety Summit takes place at Bletchley Park. Policymakers are rushing to put governance measures in place as technological progress in AI rapidly overtakes mechanisms to responsibly control or support it.

However, when a novel and fast-growing technology like this emerges, its impact is not only in its direct applications, but also in its combination with other technologies. Entirely new and disruptive sectors and technology platforms can be created where emerging technologies meet, and often, this occurs in a policy vacuum.

One such example is the convergence of gene editing and machine learning (a critical component of AI). The potential of gene editing for transforming many aspects of life, from medicine to agriculture to aesthetics, has been long recognized. Now, the advent of machine learning is accelerating these developments. Major breakthroughs have already been made in some areas. For example, a tool called ART enables engineers to synthesise new biofuels, beers and bacteria using algorithms. However, there is a lack of oversight in this area.

New research by RAND Europe explores the landscape of development and policy at the convergence of these technologies. The report, Machine Learning and Gene Editing at the Helm of a Societal Evolution, explores how forward-looking policy can both mitigate risks and leverage opportunities presented by the fast progression of machine learning and gene editing technologies. Researchers analysed both technology and policy developments and their impact across sectors and countries.

Researchers found that there can be a variety of policy styles, and it is critical to pursue the most appropriate style. In the field of gene editing, policymaking has recently been primarily reactionary in response to new developments, such as embryo model systems which have challenged the traditional doctrine of biology. More proactive approaches during fast-paced technological progress were only found at the international and supranational levels, where the primary focus is on ethics and the public good.

International cooperation is vital to future-proofing, especially as new technologies converge.

In addition to targeting the most effective policy style, international cooperation is vital to future-proofing, especially as new technologies converge. A critical overview of the wider ecosystem across nations is key to effective governance, and researchers clearly identified that nations must collaborate on AI and biotechnology—or be left behind. However, international bodies cannot exert influence unless there is an appetite and a conducive environment for this at national levels. Fortunately, scientific communities can be instrumental in incentivising countries to work together.

Active communication is key to fostering an environment where collaboration can happen, and the technical community can help in this regard. Public perception has a significant impact on how and to what extent new technology is used—for example, whether it is seen primarily as a risk, or potential benefits are widely recognized. Consequently, scientists and technologists should communicate more regularly to non-technical audiences. To further support communication, those in the gene editing and AI industries, who know of potential national and international stakeholder interest, can publicise key issues and thus inform discussions and information-gathering. Working with national governments, the scientific community can help tackle public education and dialogue on emerging technology so that more complex governance challenges can be addressed internationally.

Some of this increased communication and transparency is already happening, but it could be more systematic. For example, the University of Cambridge commissioned a public dialogue on embryo editing in the UK. This enabled participants to gain a deep understanding of the topic and discuss what is acceptable, what is not, what should happen in terms of policy, and what further areas of research are needed. The outputs of this exercise are intended to inform policies and research prioritisation for the university and the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority.

The technical community can also help to leverage existing international brokers, which have a history of independently setting policy where previously there has been none. Because policy often lags behind innovation, scientists at the forefront of emerging technologies like gene editing have not always been able to rely on national policies to support their work. This can result in stopgap standards, guidelines and principles.

International organisations such as the World Health Organisation, the United Nations, the International Society for Stem Cell Research, and the Gates Foundation often play a key role in this regard, so policymakers could draw on their resources and experience when it comes to complex policy development involving converging technologies. Scientific communities can assist by talking publicly about who these brokers are and where they have connections, helping to create links between them and other interested parties.

Together, scientific communities and governments can create an environment for well-planned and intentional policymaking around converging areas of technology. This might include convening public and multidisciplinary roundtables, education sessions in schools, or even public media outreach around their work. These contributions, along with conscious use of international brokers and open discussion among stakeholders who could be brought together, can lay the foundations for international collaboration. In turn, increased collaboration can help to mitigate risks and capitalise on opportunities surrounding convergent and emerging technologies.

Sana Zakaria is a research leader working in science and emerging technology at RAND Europe. Timothy Marler is a senior research engineer at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.