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Every year, the US Intelligence Community provides an assessment of worldwide threats to national security. The 2017 Assessment highlights genome editing, Zika, opioids, artificial intelligence, and unmanned aerial vehicles:

Genetics / Genomics

Genome editing is cited as an "Emerging and Disruptive Technology" as it is a powerful application that can precisely manipulate DNA in a wide variety of life forms and is thus revolutionizing research, health, agriculture, and other fields. “The potential to cure diseases and modify human performance” will likely challenge governments and scientific communities alike to develop regulatory as well as ethical and security frameworks or norms to govern the responsible application of the technology.


The Zika virus is cited as a “Human Security” threat because analysts continue to predict that the virus will infect individuals in the Western Hemisphere and in Southeast Asia, causing some neurological problems in adults. Moreover, studies have found that ten percent of babies born to mothers infected with Zika will have severe birth defects.

Synthetic opioid drugs (i.e., fentanyl) are cited as a “Transnational Organized Crime” threat because of the increasing number of deaths attributed to abused or illegally-obtained opioid drugs. These illicit drugs can originate in foreign countries and are imported into the United States.

Robotics / Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is cited as an "Emerging and Disruptive Technology" in the sense that advances in AI may also include increased vulnerability to cyber attack, difficulty in identifying the source of a cyber attack, facilitation of advances in foreign weapon and intelligence systems, the risk of accidents and related liability issues, and unemployment. Specifically, Iran is continuing to develop its own unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technologies to monitor and target US and allied military assets in the region.

Relevant Science 

Genetics / Genomics

A cell’s genome (all of its genetic material) is constructed of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This DNA encodes an instruction manual that tells the cell how to function and how to interact with other cells in the body. Genome editing technologies are tools used to precisely change the instructions encoded in the DNA. The tool could be used for a number of purposes, some beneficial to human health and others detrimental. For instance, the application could be used to correct faulty genetic code (mutations) associated with genetic disorders, or it could be used to make a virus more pathogenic. Recent advances, such as the development of CRISPR/Cas9 technology (SciPol brief available), have made genome editing easier and more broadly accessible.


The Zika virus is contracted primarily through an infected Aedes mosquito bite, but can also be spread through mother to child transmission, sexual transmission, and blood transfusion. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes). Other common symptoms include muscle pain and headache. Infection does not necessarily confer demonstration of symptoms. Zika virus poses an especially dangerous threat to pregnant women, as it is associated with microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s head and brain are abnormally small and the brain does not properly develop. This can lead to cognitive impairment, vision and hearing problems, seizures, and other brain-related impairments.

Opioids are a class of drugs that bind to opioid receptors in the brain, producing pain-relieving and euphoric effects. Opioids are either derived naturally from the opium poppy plant (e.g., morphine and codeine, commonly referred to as opiates), partially synthesized from opium (e.g., heroinoxycodone, and hydromorphone), or fully synthesized to mimic the effects of opium (e.g., fentanyl and methadone.) Medically, these drugs are primarily used for their analgesic (i.e., pain-relieving) properties, but are often misused, overprescribed, and abused given their propensity for dependence.

Rates of opioid dependence have significantly increased in the United States over the past two decades, resulting in a drastic increase in overdose deaths nationwide. In 2013, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that over 1.8 million people suffer from opioid use disorder. The Center for Disease Control estimates that over 33 thousand people died from opioid overdoses in 2015 alone; half of those deaths resulted from prescription opioids.

Robotics / Artificial Intelligence

Most of the progress seen in AI has been considered "narrow," having addressed specific problem domains like playing games, driving cars, or recognizing faces in images. In recent years, AI applications have surpassed human abilities in some narrow tasks, and rapid progress is expected to continue, opening up new opportunities in critical areas such as health, education, energy, and the environment. This is in contrast to “general” AI, which would replicate intelligent behavior equal to or surpassing human abilities across the full range of cognitive tasks. Experts involved with the NSTC Committee on Technology believe that it will take decades before society advances to artificial "general" intelligence.


The 2017 Assessment was presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on May 11, 2017; information presented in the document is based on intelligence available as of April 24, 2017.

Primary Author 
Alex Robeson, PhD; Andrew Pericak, MEM; Emma Vail, BA; Sean Riley, MA; Michael Clamann, PhD
Aubrey Incorvaia, MPP

Duke SciPol, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community (Statement for the Record)” available at (05/30/2017).

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