The Emerging Threat of AI-Designed Illicit Drugs

There are good and noble reasons to celebrate the advancements in the AI-assisted drug discoveries, because of the much shorter time-to-market numbers, the lessened research costs and the possibilty of finding the cure for yet incurable diseases. These together translate for more, cheaper and widely available pharmaceuticals and cures. It is hardly arguable that this phenomenon means a huge step for the mankind.

But unfortunately, there are two sides to every coin.

We already see how certain shady characters and complete shadow industries are chipping in on producing illicit novel synthetic drugs, already resulting in the most addictive chemical agents causing the most drug-related overdoses, and not their traditional forms.

One such family of engineered illicit drugs are the fentanyl analogues, which are not only fueling a severe health crisis worldwide but also the ongoing drug terror wars.

There are giant vendors offering massive AI capabilities in this field, like IBM’s Watson that propels the research into this field of the equally giant Pfizer labs, but there are also start-ups and scale-ups involved in the matter. This means a growing number of experience and talent in the use of AI in the human biology pattern recognition field.

And while this kind of talent is one of the most sought after and consequently very well paid, chances are that sooner or later some disgruntled bioengineer or AI data scientist, for example will reach out for the dark web and try to connect with an industry where even more money is involved. And the interconnected illicit drug production, smuggling amd distribution network is second to none in this regard. If you doubt this, consider whom are engineering the designer drugs of today.

An analogue might be found in the IT security sector, where the dividing lines between the holy and the evil are very thin to say the least.

In today’s illicit drug markets some synthetic analogies already made headway to replace their respective traditional counterparts, because of their attributes that these are more potent, need no natural component thus eradicating the need to plant, cultivate and harvest, have higher profit margins, and, because of being more compact, have simpler logistics – simplifying production and smuggling. Fentanyl analogues, for example, already cut into, or even replaced entirely, the supply of heroin and other opiates in various places. Apart from opiates there are a number of other substances that are already having synthetic analogues, like synthetic cannabinoids and various amphetamine/metamphetamene products.

In addition, the omission of activity linked to a specific tract of land brings additional benefits, that might significally change the international criminal landscape and balance.  The coca and opium poppy production both need large areas and a huge, diversified manpower for the cultivation of the crops, the physical control over the land, the pre-processing of the crops into a raw paste and the transport of the raw material towards the processing labs where the finished product is prepared. The total area involved in coca and opium poppy is currently in a growing tendency, emcompassing around 2.000 square kilometres or about 500.000 acres, located in volatile regions around the globe. Given the nature of the business, these regions are controlled by paramiltary narcos, whom not only able to defy state forces, but also clashong with each other. The armed presence of such paramilitary narcos is prevalent not only in the cultivation areas, but extends to the smuggling routes up until their initial landing points in their main target markets located in those countries where the demand is generated.

The evolution of the narco business transformed the criminal dynamics in the last 20 years, with the armed gangs morphing into paramilitary forces. These narco paramilitaries are ranging from small sicario cliques to guerilla armies depending on the geography and the opposition they face. Without specifics beyond the scope of this article it worths mentioning that their operations cost more than 100.000 human lives every year, most of whom are murdered.

What more, these operations spawn additional criminal support networks employed in the precursor production and money laundering trade located all over the globe.

And finally the distribution phase warrants the presence and strengthening of local criminal structures or gangs that are delivering the illicit goods to the consumers.

If and when a new breed of AI-synthetized drugs evolves into a consumable product it will, however, change these dynamics.

Firstly, because it will cut out the most heavily armed component of this criminal enterprise, like the Colombian AUC or Urabeños narco-guerilla armies, the minority-focused guerilla armies of Myanmar or the Taliban of Afghanistan. These vast armies will be then forced to look for other means of financing themselves, leading to much more bloodshed than we experience now, because of the inevitable splintering and because of the progression onto the total exploitaton of the local population.

Secondly, the middle layer is already undergoing a massive expansion in both numbers, reach, sophistication, armed capabilities and profitability. This middle layer currently is composed of such groups, like the Mexican Cártel de Sinaloa or the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, the Italian ‘Ndrangheta, the Brazilian Primeiro Comando da Capital, Albanian and Serbian clans and a whole lot more such entities. It is already established that these middle layer players are thriving to move upstream, that is taking over as much of the overall illicit drug production, transportation and trade as it is possible. With the need to rely on cultivation lands in specific regions gone it is highly likely that these entities will eventually become significantly larger and powerful, since on the one hand they are already located in or in the immediate neighborhood of the USA, the EU and other large markets and on the other hand they will be able to dislocate themselves from their weakest points, which are the seaports they must co-jointly control with the authorities. With these restrictions gone their operations will be much more covert all the while the cards will be redistributed causing even more violence.

What we see is the natutal evolution of the science (and pretty much every social deed), that is for every good result, there is a bad one too.

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