AI Vs. Bioterrorism: Artificial Intelligence Trained to Detect Anthrax by Scientists

Spores from the Sterne strain of anthrax bacteria (Bacillus anthracis) are pictured in this handout scanning electron micrograph obtained by Reuters May 28, 2015. Reuters/Center for Disease Control/Handout

South Korean scientists have been able to train artificial intelligence to detect anthrax at fast speeds, potentially dealing a blow to bioterrorism.

Hidden in letters, the biological agent killed five Americans and infected 17 more in the year following the 9/11 attacks, and the threat of a biological attack remains a top concern of Western security services as radicals such as the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) seek new ways to attack the West.

Researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology have now created an algorithm that is able to study bacterial spores and quickly identify the biological agent, according to a paper published last week for the Science Advances journal.

The new training of AI to identify the bacteria using microscopic images could decrease the time it takes to detect anthrax drastically, to mere seconds from a day. It is also accurate 95 percent of the time.

Anthrax contaminates the body when spores enter it, mostly through inhalation, multiplying and spreading an illness that could be fatal. Skin infections of anthrax are less deadly.

"This study showed that holographic imaging and deep learning can identify anthrax in a few seconds," YongKeun "Paul" Park, associate professor of physics at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, told the IEEE Spectrum blog.

"Conventional approaches such as bacterial culture or gene sequencing would take several hours to a day," he added.

Park is working with the South Korean agency responsible for developing the country's defense capabilities amid fears that North Korea may plan a biological attack against its archenemy across their shared border.

North Korea's regime is no stranger to chemical agents. South Korea has accused operatives linked to Pyongyang of responsibility for the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half brother, Kim Jong Nam, using a VX agent at Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport in February.

Contamination by anthrax has a death rate of 80 percent, so detection of the bacteria is crucial.

Spreading anthrax far and wide in an attack would mean that thousands would die if contaminated. So Western security services fear that hostile parties, such as ISIS sympathizers or regimes such as North Korea, will make attempts to develop a capability to cause a mass-casualty attack.

The researchers say the AI innovation could bring advances elsewhere, too, including the potential to detect other bacterias, such as those that cause food poisoning and kill more than a quarter of a million people every year.