Absci at the Senate AI Forum
Harnessing AI for biological innovation
Absci Founder & CEO Sean McClain spoke at the Senate AI Insights Forum on October 24, 2023, on maintaining U.S. leadership in AI, minimizing risks, and harnessing AI for the greatest good.
By Sean McClain, Absci Founder & CEO
The transformative power of artificial intelligence (AI) is indisputable, with its influence resonating across diverse sectors. However, the conversation around AI often focuses on mainstream applications like ChatGPT and DALL-E, with less attention paid to the transformative potential of AI in healthcare and biotech. At Absci, we are using AI with the goal of accelerating drug discovery to create better medicines for everyone and respond rapidly to health crises and outbreaks. That stands to impact people’s daily lives in a profound way.
To share this perspective, I was invited to the second Senate AI Insights Forum hosted by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senators Rounds, Heinrich, and Young. This event, attended by influential figures such as Marc Andreessen and John Doerr, and leading academics and civil society leaders, aimed to foster discussion on how the U.S. can sustain its leading position in AI while ensuring safety. Here are some of the critical points I shared with lawmakers.
Data is paramount
The role of data in AI for biology cannot be overstated. Quality data is the backbone of any successful AI application. While public data repositories lay the groundwork, proprietary high-throughput biological data is the key to unlocking AI’s potential in drug discovery. Unlike ChatGPT or DALL-E, which have the entire internet as training data, biological data is dwarfed in comparison and is the bottleneck to scaling AI in biology. Only by scaling high-quality biological data via platforms such as Absci’s can our nation win the race in AI for biology.
Data is the critical next step to unlock AI’s potential in biology. The U.S. must sustain its leadership in AI by accelerating investments, particularly in producing and protecting high-quality biological data. This is essential for timely and effective responses to emerging health crises.
Several public data sources are vital to U.S. innovation in biotech and beyond. These open-source datasets are essential resources for drug discovery – we should support them in every way we can through policies that encourage collaborative scientific advancement while instituting robust safeguards against potential bioterrorism and unintentional accidents.
At Absci, we also realize that open-source data alone cannot scale for AI. That is why we build on public data sources by adding our own experimental wet lab data. Our proprietary synthetic biology platform generates the massive amounts of biological data needed to enable the predictive power of machine learning. Then, we use that data to design and run experiments in silico (on the computer rather than at a lab bench). This dramatically speeds up the discovery process at a scale and pace that could never be applied using standard methods. Supporting the development of a vibrant biotechnology community with pooled proprietary datasets will help set the U.S. apart when scaling biological data for AI
Safeguarding against the weaponization of AI
As much as AI in biology can be used to transform the lives of patients for the better, without proper safeguards, this same technology in the hands of bad actors can be weaponized to do harm at unprecedented levels. Absci’s vision is to deliver breakthrough medicines at the click of a button. By the same principle, bad actors have the potential to leverage AI to create biowarfare and bioterrorism agents at the click of a button. The consequences of that would be devastating for America and the world.
The critical safeguard against the threat of bioterrorism is, once again, data. We need a U.S. strategy to create and maintain data and AI superiority that positions U.S. innovators to have superior tools at their disposal to counter terrorist organizations or other opposing forces. Policymaking should prepare for this threat not as an “if” but rather as a “when.” The government can play a key role in mitigating harms through collaborations and partnerships with and between U.S. innovators for AI rapid response programs to counter bioterrorism. If we look at Operation Warp Speed, American innovation brought three life-saving Covid vaccines to the world in record time. Let’s borrow from those winning ingredients to accelerate a U.S. era of AI leadership through focused partnerships between the government and U.S. innovators aimed at solving massive societal issues that affect us all: pandemic preparedness and protecting U.S. citizens from the threat of bioterrorism.
One-size AI policy does not fit all
The unique nature of AI in biology vis a vis the general discourse around AI calls for a nuanced approach by policymakers. Some advocate that generative AI should be heavily regulated to prevent its potential misuse. Others think it should be lightly regulated so as not to stifle innovation and public benefit. An all-or-nothing approach like this may be the wrong way to think about it. That’s because generative AI introduces different kinds of challenges to different industries.
For example, AI-designed drugs go through the same rigorous FDA approval process as drugs designed by conventional drug discovery campaigns to ensure their safety and effectiveness, so additional regulations on the AI (which in this case is a tool to discover the drug candidate) would amount to double regulating. This could result in stifling the very innovation that could improve the efficiency and success rates of getting new medicines to patients. On the other hand, we must ensure we have access to high-quality training data that is free from biases that may discriminate against underrepresented groups. Regulators could establish guidelines to ensure the quality of the underlying data used in designing AI drugs.
Regulation of AI in biology is a delicate balancing act. Policymakers must refrain from imposing overly restrictive regulations, as this could hinder innovation. Furthermore, AI-derived medications still face traditional FDA scrutiny. Therefore, regulations should focus on ensuring the integrity and neutrality of data, which are crucial for developing safe and effective AI-driven drugs.
Lead today or follow tomorrow
Generative AI might be the fastest-moving field in the history of technology. The United States must lead today, or we will be forced to follow tomorrow. The stakes are too high for the government or industry to tackle AI policy-making alone. For our part, Absci can help guide policy constructively and positively at the intersection of AI and biology. It’s also important to me to remind us all not to lose sight of the huge opportunity for patients and our society. Every minute of every day, patients wait for a cure, and our nation has a technology that could potentially deliver breakthrough therapeutics at the click of a button.
It was an immense honor to offer our perspective from Absci’s work in AI drug creation to the important and time-sensitive dialogue around AI and policymaking. I thank Leader Schumer, and Senators Rounds, Heinrich, and Young for inviting me. We look forward to continuing to share our insights in AI and biology in helping to guide generative AI toward the greatest public good.