Synthetic bio is risk as well as an opportunity

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Synthetic biology risks could come from error or terror, warns WEF
Synthetic biology risks could come from error or terror, warns WEF
Emerging technologies such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence pose risks to the world as well as big opportunities, warns the ‘Global Risks 2015’ report published last month by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

New technologies require better regulation to safeguard their rapid development. This would enable the benefits to be reaped, while preventing misuse of the technologies and any unforeseen negative consequences.

“Innovation is critical to global prosperity, but also creates new risk,”​ said John Drzik, president of global risk at Marsh & McLellan, which supports the WEF report.

“We must anticipate the issues that will arise from emerging technologies, and develop the safeguards and governance to prevent avoidable disasters.”

The report, now in its 10th year, is an assessment by 896 global experts from the business, academic and non-governmental organisation (NGO) world on the top risks over the coming 10 years.


“What gets under-appreciated is the degree to which these emerging technologies are creating new vulnerabilities and the pace of innovation is outpacing our ability to govern around some of these risks,”​ said Drzik.

“Take cyber as an example. There has been incredible innovation over the past decade … but until recently the potential vulnerabilities from cybersecurity weren’t front page news – but now it is and the risk is very substantial.”

The cost of cyber attacks globally is estimated at around $400bn a year, he said. “To put that in perspective, that’s the gross domestic product of Austria or Thailand lost every year to cyber attacks.”

Other emerging technologies also posed significant threats, he added. “One is synthetic biology where there is a tremendous surge in research and investment,” remarked Drzik.

Infectious diseases

“There are a lot of benefits that can stem from this. Synthetic biology can help us fight infectious diseases, treat neurological disorders, alleviate food security concerns, create biofuels. But there are also risks.

“The risk could come from error or from terror: error in the accidental leakage of an organism into the environment and bioterrorism from organised groups or individual bio-hackers who have access to synthetic biology.”

The same is true for nanotechnology, he warned. “This technology also has potential risks that can be created in health, the environment, various types of safety, and these are not really understood,” ​he said.

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