Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz about the “Metaverse,” a virtual world created by Meta that’s in the embryonic stages. Though it seems as if we’ve been hearing about the transformative power of virtual reality for years without our lives actually being transformed, some pundits think this new stab at it might hit the mark, especially in health care and drug development. However, as with any stab, it might hit a vital organ, too.
The Metaverse (of which Meta’s version is just one of a potential multitude of virtual spaces) is envisioned as a virtual world accessed through VR or augmented reality goggles or glasses. Here, users can engage in social activities, commerce, gaming and many of the other things they’d do in the real world.1 Researchers are already using similar virtual experiences to design new drug compounds; after donning VR goggles and holding two controllers, the scientist can actually walk inside a drug molecule or view a neuron’s receptors as they interact with a drug, sparking new ideas on how to improve or tweak a pharmaceutical agent.2
As is the case with many current innovations, the engine that’ll run the Metaverse is artificial intelligence. “The kinds of experiences that you’ll have in the Metaverse are beyond what is possible today,” says Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Meta Platforms. “... and the key to unlocking a lot of these is advances in AI.”3
However, as we put our faith in AI to enable us to build these VR worlds and develop new drug compounds, we have to remember that AI is a double-edged sword—or, more specifically, a “dual-use” one, according to an article from Nature Machine Intelligence.4
In the article, researchers used an AI molecule generator called MegaSyn to simulate drug molecules that “reward both toxicity and bioactivity,” instead of penalizing the former and rewarding the latter, as is done normally. Within six hours, MegaSyn had generated 40,000 molecules as lethal as the infamous nerve agent VX (a few grains kill a human), as well as many new ones that were projected to be even deadlier than current chemical warfare agents. The researchers were justifiably startled, and called MegaSyn’s work a “wake-up call.”
“By going as close as we dared, we have still crossed a grey moral boundary,” the authors said, “demonstrating that it is possible to design virtual potential toxic molecules without much in the way of effort, time or computational resources.”
Let’s hope researchers heed this warning and step into the Metaverse with care and humility.
— Walter Bethke
Editor in Chief
1. Yang D, Zhou J, Chen R, et al. Expert consensus on the metaverse in medicine. Clinical eHealth 2022;5;1-9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ceh.2022.02.001
2. MIT Professional Education News. https://professional.mit.edu/news/articles/virtual-reality-puts-drug-researchers-inside-molecules-they-study. Accessed March 23, 2022.
3. Meta Video. Inside the lab: Building for the metaverse with AI. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/.watch?v=9mDRlN7auOo. Accessed March 23, 2022.
4. Urbina F, Lentzos F, Ivernizzi C, et al. Dual use of artificial-intelligence-powered drug discovery. Nat Mach Intell 2022;4:189–191. https://doi.org/10.1038/s42256-022-00465-9. Accessed March 23, 2022