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On Dual-Use Information Technology

By: 
Athina Petropulu

While I am writing this column, the Russia–Ukraine war is raging. As bombings, destruction, and human suffering flood the daily news, I deeply feel the pain of our Ukrainian colleagues, those who have friends and family in the affected areas, those who had to put their studies and careers on hold to fight for their survival. I also acknowledge the agony of those around the world who are watching the developments in horror, trying to comprehend why such insanity was necessary.

In just three weeks since the Russian invasion, the war has displaced 2.6 million people, according to United Nations estimates. This new wave of refugees has been added to the over 10 million refugees from west Asia, who were forced out of their homes by military conflicts over the past 10 years. This new humanitarian disaster comes as the world is coming out of the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused a global death toll of over 5.5 million and counting.

In our digital era, in addition to the physical violence caused by tanks and artillery, the war is fought in the cybersphere. I am sure many of us are wondering to what degree the technologies that we develop can be used, or perhaps already have been used, to cause human suffering.

Signal processing researchers and practitioners are pushing the envelope in speech and language processing, image and video processing, study of the brain, radar, information forensics and security, health monitoring, artificial intelligence, among many other areas, always with the goal to benefit humanity. However, the very research that we produce with the best intentions can be used to launch attacks against humanity.

In life sciences, research that is intended to provide a clear benefit, but which could also be misapplied to pose a threat to public health and safety is referred to as “Dual Use Research of Concern” [1]. An example of such research is the study of viruses. Scientists often create modified versions of dangerous viruses to study how they affect humans and animals, and how they can be fought. At the same time, these viruses have the potential to cause great harm if not handled with care, or if allowed by malicious actors to infect people or animals. While the risk of misuse is always present, there are regulations that preserve the benefits of life sciences research while minimizing the risk of misuse (see, for example, [1] for the U.S. policy on this issue).

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