April 26, 2024

The Coming Wave

By Jill Hubbard Bowman


If you read one book on artificial intelligence this year, read The Coming Wave – Technology, Power, and the 21st Century’s Greatest Dilemma. It’s the scariest book I’ve read in a decade, in large part, because the author is not a science fiction writer but a man who may be able to accurately predict the future of AI: Mustafa Suleyman, the new CEO of Microsoft AI and the cofounder of DeepMind and Inflection AI.

Suleyman is now publicly making an urgent slippery slope argument he says he’s been making behind closed doors for a decade: artificial intelligence technology and synthetic biology are the core components of a quickly approaching tsunami that will cause catastrophic consequences unless it’s contained.

In this vision, the emerging technology Wave could cause an existential crisis for nations resulting in a dystopia with dysfunctional Zombie governments, feudal-like fiefdoms, or authoritative regimes using AI to master and control the population.

With cheap, widely available AI and synthetic biology, massive disruptions could be perpetuated by governments, fanatical factions, or even teenagers in the basement: Cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure for water, power, and transportation at an unprecedented scale. Swarms of cheap autonomous killer drones. Bio-engineered, massively lethal pandemics.

The Statue Of Liberty underwater lying on sea bed sand. Fallen Liberty.

Suleyman makes such a persuasive case I briefly thought of being a doomsday prepper. My husband, who frequently watches TV shows about surviving off the grid, nixed the idea as too isolating. I can see how shocking disruptions could be exploited to push through unpopular policies and extreme regimes who promise safety and stability to the masses of unemployed angry citizens armed with far more than pitchforks and flags. [The scenarios remind me of Naomi Klein’s stories of how crises can be capitalized for greed and agendas of the powerful in her book, The Shock Doctrine.]

In one of the most interesting sections, The Wave puts disruptive technology in the historical context of other transformative technologies, including the printing press, mechanical looms, electricity, and the internet, to illuminate how transformative technology is ultimately unstoppable and will ultimately proliferate to the corners of the earth. It also shows how the synergy of powerful emerging technologies like AI, synthetic biology, and quantum computing will accelerate and amplify not only magical breakthroughs in biology and medicine but possible world destruction.

Although new luddites might advocate for banning emerging technology, Suleyman argues the world needs this technology for continued economic growth and to save us from the damage we have caused ourselves.

Suleyman urgently advocates for global technology containment. He warns against “pessimism aversion”, an attitude which will put us all in peril. The Wave and resulting disruption are coming far faster than we think. We can’t wait. There are billions in funding and the potential of trillions in profit propelling the Wave.

Instead of avoidance, the world needs to act urgently but also slow down development of the Wave. Suleyman outlines ten categories of containment. Here are the core concepts:

  • Global human cooperation, alignment, and control. Everyone – makers, businesses, governments, and the public – needs to coherently work together to figure out how to oversee, regulate, and standardize emerging powerful technology.
  • Safety. Design it in. Consider giving an international entity a kill switch.
  • Audits and transparency. Publicly show, track, and fix problems.

To keep the world safe, Suleyman also advocates limiting access to “powerful AI models and synthetic organisms” and banning open-source licensing.

"If everyone in the world can play with nuclear bombs, at some stage you have nuclear war."

Suleyman is hopeful but sees containment as a difficult:

“. . . I imagine containment as a narrow and treacherous path, wreathed in fog, a plunging precipice on either side, catastrophe or dystopia just a small slip away, you can’t see far ahead, and as you tread, the path twist and turns, throws up unexpected obstacles.”

I hope you read The Coming Wave. Its’ a great book club selection for discussion.

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© 2023 Jill Hubbard Bowman. All rights reserved.