‘The Coming Wave’ by Mustafa Suleyman
Be warned this book could both excite you and deeply concern you, to be honest it blew my socks off! There is little doubt that technology will cause our world to become almost unrecognisable in as little as 5 to 10 years-time.
I strongly recommend people to read books like this one, and like the book ‘Scary Smart’ that I reviewed 2 months ago to get their heads around the enormity of the technology that is coming down the track and how it will impact every aspect of life For this very reason, this book is brilliantly entitled ‘The Coming Wave’.
The book’s author, Mustafa Suleyman, is an AI engineer, an entrepreneur, a thought leader and a technology visionary, who’s perspective on technology in this book I have found to be incredibly insightful and valuable. Suleyman co-founded Deep Mind, arguably, the most impactful small AI company in history.
In this book I love the fact that like most visionary thinkers the author makes many references to the previous technology waves in history to illustrate the patterns that repeat as well as the positive and negative impacts that also repeat.
However, it highlights the profound impact that the new wave of technologies are already having now and will continue to have in the future in shaping our everyday lives.
Google saw the potential of Deep Mind when they acquired the British based business as a wholly owned subsidiary in 2013, following it’s published research on an AI system showing that it had exceeded human abilities in a variety of video games such as Pong, Breakout and Enduro. Like many great technologies the world of gaming proved to be the most fruitful arena for its development.
In March 2016, from seemingly nowhere, Deep Mind exploded onto the global AI scene when it was instrumental in creating what some people consider to be the most significant ‘tipping point’ in the history of all technology. Never in history has a technology existed which, without any further human input, can teach itself to become exponentially smarter, and ultimately become much smarter than the developers who built it, this is truly an historical first! Yes, that measurement of smartness is currently within a specific context, however, this is just the start of AI beginning to take over most aspects of human life.
AlphaGo – arguably the biggest tipping point in the history of technology!
AlphaGo, is the name of a famous research and development project where Deep Mind was challenged to develop an AI program to beat a professional ‘Go’ Player.
The ancient Chinese game of ‘Go’ has exponentially more move permutations than chess, in fact ‘Go’ has more move permutations than there are atoms in the universe (if you can get your head around that!). The greatest ever ‘Go’ players not only have immense logical minds that can think many moves ahead, but they are also able to demonstrate exceptional levels of intuitive and creative awareness, so much so that prior to 2016, it was thought it would be a hundred years before a computer program could compete with a professional ‘Go’ player.
The project culminated in AlphaGo contesting a 5-match series over 5 days against the man many consider to be the greatest ever ‘Go’ player, multiple world champion Lee Sedol, a man considered by the millions of people who play ‘Go’ to be both a logical and intuitive genius. The 5-day event was held in South Korea and became one of the most watched television events ever in both China, Japan and South Korea watched by hundreds of millions of people.
This historical tipping point was two-fold, firstly, there was the monumental demonstration that for the first time in history AI was able to teach itself to become smarter than any human at a given task, in this case the ancient Chinese game of ‘Go’. Secondly, a legendary move, move number 37 on the second game was considered by most of the highest ranked ‘Go’ players in the world to be a highly unconventional move and one of the most creative and greatest moves ever recorded in the history of the game of ‘Go’.
You can watch the YouTube documentary here ….. “AlphaGo – The Movie | Full award-winning documentary”
So, what does the book tell us about ‘The Coming Wave’?
Having read and re-read this book, I would surmise that the 3 biggest themes of this book that people would be wise to understand better are:
1.The current technologies and coming technologies that you may, or may not be, aware of, and their capabilities.
2.The wonderful benefits and potential catastrophic existential dangers of these emergent technologies.
3.How to manage the existential dangers of these emergent technologies that are already becoming infinitely smarter than us. A concept the author calls ‘containment’.
New emerging, life-changing technologies powered by AI and quantum computing, many improving in their capabilities more rapidly than any previous technology which few people know more than a little about. Technologies that bring with them magnificent opportunities for progress as well as potentially catastrophic existential dangers.
Genome Editing Technology
From surveillance to gaming, to manufacturing, to biology I would guess that the average person will only be aware of no more than 20 percent of the technological capabilities that currently exist in all areas of technology. Let us consider just one narrow areas of technology ‘genome editing’. Did you realise that because of AI technology in the last 10 years gene editing capabilities have expanded exponentially and the costs of doing so have also plummeted?
The gnome editing technology known as the CRISPR revolution (clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) revolution is astonishingly powerful technology both positively and negatively. Today it can be conducted by someone with the right training for a few thousand dollars in their garage.
Benchtop DNA synthesisers are available at a starting price of $25,000. The 3-d printing and editing of DNA is becoming assessable to more and more people.
The benefits of these advances in genome editing are potentially immense, allowing the genetic engineering to both prevent and fight disease in plants, animals and humans.
On the other hand, there are great dangers in these advances.
The CIA recently admitted that Covid-19 virus was indeed ‘made in a lab’ (funded by the US Government under gain of function research). However, this nefarious activity was conducted in a very expensive, regulated laboratory. However, now the emergent technologies mean that ‘Joe Blow’ could make a deadly virus from a lab in his own garage. The risks of a rogue or criminal individual or group being able to engineer a deadly bacteria or virus have exponentially increased in just the last few years.
Gene editing could enable someone to engineer a superior athlete, or a government to engineer superior soldiers or parents to choose the genetic make-up of their next child.
Deep Mind played their own part in advancing biology using AI with their AlphaFold project that enabled scientists to solve the conundrum of predicting protein folding, this was a seismic earthquake in the world of biological science.
Elon Musk has said that AI is a greater threat to humanity than nuclear weapons and the dangers of technology facilitating either an existential crisis or a dystopian future are chillingly real and spelt out clearly by the author.
You only need to look at nuclear weapons to know that, you cannot get away from the need to have some form of centralised control, however, this centralised control itself is equally dangerous when it comes to managing AI in the context of human freedoms as it will exaggerate further the power in the hands of a few, power which without doubt can be abused to create an Orwellian world of totalitarian control.
AI is one of the primary drivers of so called ‘SMART Technology’ but hang on a minute, what does this fancy acronym stand for? Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology, which is a fancy phrase for ‘Centralised Surveillance’ a capability that is already being used in China to monitor citizens behaviours and punish or reward them based on the rules set put by their government. The author spells out that AI technology is fraught with dangers. on the one side the dystopia of totalitarian government that causes the loss of the most fundamental human freedoms and on the other side the danger of a crackpot individual or rogue group of individuals being able to use AI to have a devastating impact on out world.
Profit v A greater Purpose. The author recognises that many individuals and many businesses are driven by profits or perhaps ‘power’ above all else, therefore these technologies could be used in a way that is good for some people’s profits or powers, but could be disastrous in terms of ‘the greater good’.
The last few chapters of the book are focused on the vital subject of ‘containment of these powerful emerging technologies’
On the one hand governments could implement total and absolute surveillance of every aspect of your life under the excuse of ‘safety’ leading to great censorship and the loss of democracy and freedom. On the other hand, without some central control, is essential to regulate these technologies to prevent catastrophic criminal and terrorist acts.
Containment is a tough balancing act to provide society with protection whilst avoiding the inevitable dangers of dystopia that comes with centralised control.
The author’s summary of the ‘containment path ahead’ is beautifully put ….
“Rather than a corridor that implies a clear direction of travel, I imagine containment as a narrow and treacherous path reaped in fog, 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 twists and turns, throws up unexpected obstacles.”