The Coming Wave examines the impact of AI and advanced tech on civilisation and the future of humans
Mustafa Suleyman, Co-founder of DeepMind, argues for containment of AI expansion while explaining its many benefits for our world.
Typing an email or a brief awakens you to the fact that artificial intelligence or AI is everywhere around us. Whether one books an online appointment, seeks out a bank query, or books an air ticket, chatbots and prompts run by AI pop up to smoothen operations.
AI has been transforming the way we work and live gradually for the past decade. With the emergence of sophisticated, more efficient AI models that can write, converse, manage tasks, edit, and also analyse data superfast, the omnipresence of advanced technology is evident and contentiously debated today.
Tech entrepreneur and AI researcher Mustafa Suleyman would be better equipped to demystify AI for us. The co-founder of Google-acquired DeepMind, a London-based AI research laboratory, goes beyond that and brings a holistic overview of a cluster of advanced new technologies that will create super efficiency, prosperity and progress.
AI also holds the potential to threaten the nation-state, the global order, and the socio-economic balance, as regulators and governments remain somnambulant on this radical new technology.
Suleyman has designed products that have offered complex solutions to problems that require merging AI with synthetic biology. Hence he has had a ringside view of the progress of rapidly proliferating new technologies across fields.
In his debut book, co-written with Michael Bhaskar, Suleyman discusses the unprecedented risks associated with the advancement of AI and related technologies.
Suleyman has made The Coming Wave: Technology, Power and the Twenty-first Century’s Greatest Dilemma readable for interested non-tech professionals by correlating the sudden emergence of powerful technologies with epic historical periods. He traces the role of revolutionary technology in shaping civilisation through the Bronze Age, the Industrial Revolution, and the advent of the steam engine and the motor car.
Technologies come in waves, changing lives and livelihoods for good. Preventing their onset, like Tokugawa Japan or mediaeval China did, leads to stagnation and failure for a nation or a government.
Just when one wonders about the extended history lesson, Suleyman explains the unpredictable impact that the present wave of technologies could bring to our world. AI, combined with advanced robotics, genetic editing, quantum computers, and synthetic biology, along with rapidly growing fusion power, is going to bring a wave that has the scale and impact of a tsunami.
Well-versed with their core functions and efficiencies, Suleyman says that each brings good and progress to life on the planet. For instance, strands of genetic editing are working on reintroducing a woolly mammoth to tropical rainforests. A strand of synthetic biology is addressing capture and correction of the root cause of carcinogens. Yet he sees a huge threat from unregulated, unfettered growth in technology.
In his words, “None of us are prepared.”
The Coming Wave makes it clear that fundamental changes to society and the world economic order in the upcoming decades will be driven by insights from data. Be it AI, quantum computers, engineered pathogens, or gene editing, these technologies are making mind boggling advances at a quick pace and without adequate containment.
As Suleyman explains, with flexible DNA research kits available online, one can engineer a deadly pathogen or virus in a garage at home, bringing in a DIY apocalypse. All it takes is an enthusiastic and smart self-learner to figure out the methods of generating life in a home lab kit today.
Focusing on AI, Suleyman highlights the fact that the cost of developing this technology is dropping very quickly–a truth that applies to every advanced technology.
As micro chips get smaller and more efficient, things that felt like fiction will become a reality before we know it. And if some amount of containment is not carried out, the world could be sitting on a series of disasters, including autonomous weapons and algorithms that can unknowingly cause social or military upheavals.
Suleyman’s personal experience of attending such policy discussions and think-tank conversations reflects a frustration that a senior technology expert would feel–due to a lot of hand wringing and blinkered vision and little cohesive action to regulate technological advances.
The writer feels the same about the fraternity of tech experts, scientists, tech investors, and venture capitalists too.
Both the polity and scientific fraternity are either in semi-denial about the consequences of uncontained technological advances or simply not equipped to understand their impact.
This book requires patient reading to parse through extensive details of science and tech terms that no one learnt at school. Sometimes one wonders if Suleyman might be getting carried away in an oft repeated disconnect, a sort of tech cloud bubble metaverse, where AI, robots, genetically transformed tomatoes, and altered humans can bring doomsday.
As is common with tech gurus and business tycoons, his emphasis is on the game-changing impact of innovations that his company DeepMind brought, omitting to mention similar significant progress that other contemporary companies have been responsible for.
Having said that, the book is a valuable and enlightening read.
The author’s ability to observe the upcoming onset of a larger technological era where technologies support each other–be it AI, robotics, synthetic biology, gene editing or fusion power–in a machine-led synergy and wonder about the overarching consequences of the same is worth noting.
The analysis is thorough, set in a real world, and the consequences keep reminding one of the ways in which technology will change people’s lives.
As he said in a conference of peers, Suleyman keeps highlighting the fact that the pitchforks, a simile for common people, will come for the tech whizzes soon, as employment and earnings for millions could plummet in the near future.
At the same time, Suleyman has elucidated the life-changing benefits that AI will deliver in healthcare, coupled with similar technologies like genetic editing and fusion power. With time and adequate financial backing, these technologies can also bring about clean energy, clean drinking water, and disease prevention. The book offers a detailed analysis of such developments in a readable manner.
Suleyman’s core introspection is over the ‘containment problem’–the global coordinated mega task of controlling powerful and rapidly growing technologies that can function independently from human control. He finds this the biggest and the most complex challenge of our times.
Once you finish reading his book and blink, you begin to agree with him. A technological wave as radical as this can’t be prevented. But it can perhaps be managed better, and this book brings an eye-opening point of view on this upcoming tectonic shift that’s bound to hit all our lives.
Edited by Swetha Kannan