Book Review – The Coming Wave

“The Coming Wave” by Mustafa Suleyman is a compelling exploration of the future of artificial intelligence (AI) and other rapidly advancing technologies, along with their potential benefits and dangers.

Suleyman, co-founder of Google’s DeepMind, persuasively argues that these technologies will threaten our very existence. Towards the book’s end, he presents a thoughtful 10-point program that offers readers a blueprint for how to contain these risks.

This new and important book reminds one of “Future Shock,” a 1970 read by futurist Alvin Toffler, in which he underscores the theme of “too much change in too short a period of time.” Toffler argued that the accelerated rate of technological and social change would leave people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation,” as a result of being “future shocked!”

As Suleyman convincingly demonstrates, artificial intelligence and synthetic biology are evolving at a far more accelerated pace than anyone could have imagined when Toffler’s book was written over 50 years ago.

In “The Coming Wave” Suleyman states that we are now living “in an unprecedented moment of exponential innovation and upheaval, an unparalleled augmentation that will leave little unchanged. Starting to crash around us in a new wave of technology.” This “coming wave” is the narrative he espouses throughout the pages.

The core theme of this brilliant book is that AI and Synthetic Biology together will usher in a new dawn for humanity, creating unprecedented wealth and solutions to our most intractable problems – such as climate change, pandemics, cancer, illnesses, and even mortality.

Suleyman boldly asserts that AI will soon discover miracle drugs, diagnose rare diseases, run warehouses, optimize traffic flow through throughfares, and design sustainable cities.

However, the coming wave of technological advancements will have a much darker side, Suleyman predicts. By way of example, he believes that these same technologies that will allow us to cure a disease could be used to cause one.

Suleyman notes, for example, that the price of genetic sequencing has plummeted, while the ability to edit DNA with technologies such as Crispr has vastly improved. This, he says, could lead to the manipulation of the human genome, and even by design or accident the creation of novel pathogens that could be deadly.

In Suleyman’s view, the coming wave of innovative technology may empower a wide array of bad actors to “unleash disruption, instability, and even catastrophe on an unimaginable scale.” One scenario that Suleyman suggests is the use of inexpensive “smart” drones by terrorists who, using advanced AI from a remote location, spread fatal substances killing hundreds or even thousands or millions of people.

As the author notes, this would far surpass the 1995 act of terrorism in Japan where members of a cult movement released deadly sarin on three subway lines killing thirteen, injuring 50 (some of whom later died), and causing vision problems for more than a thousand others.

Despite the immense risks created by the coming wave of technology, the technological needs in terms of improving the lives of people all over the world has never been greater.

The challenge, therefore, according to Suleyman is one of containment. This is the essential dilemma – how can we create guardrails for these innovative technologies so that the world can enjoy their invaluable benefits while minimizing or even eliminating the death, damage, and destruction that the coming wave inevitably can cause?

As we’ve seen in the past with technology, havoc can be the result of bad actors or just by accident like at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986, the worst nuclear disaster in history.

To avoid future technology disasters, asserts Suleyman we must immediately devise and start executing a comprehensive containment program involving the thoughtful and discrete monitoring, curtailing, controlling and even shutting down of technology. He believes that a comprehensive technology containment program is “a prerequisite for the survival of humanity.”

Suleyman concludes “The Coming Wave” by suggesting ten measures that should be immediately implemented for containment. These include….

  • increasing technical safety measures in laboratories, manufacturing plants, and other development venues;
  • auditing of technology development programs;
  • slowing down technological development in some cases to give people an opportunity to consider the possible consequences of their research and development of technology;
  • creating a culture for the sharing of information and data among developers of technology.

In addition, Suleyman states there must be greater and more agile government regulation of technology, including increased international cooperation to harmonize various nation’s laws and technology development programs.

Over thirty years ago, I gave a series of lectures in the United States and Europe exploring the challenges of adopting laws and regulations in response to the problems posed by new technologies, then primarily consisting of the Internet, websites, and email.

Data protection concerns at that time were in their infancy. Legislators and regulators could not then, and cannot now, enact effective laws without some level of understanding of what is being regulated.

I stated that legislators and regulators will find it difficult to understand the science of these new technologies, and that they will need to consult experts or technology advisory councils for assistance. This is exactly what Suleyman is recommending 35 years later.

Here is an example now in the news. As I was reading “The Coming Wave,” the U.S Congress was conducting a legislative hearing regarding the dangers presented by social media platforms such as Facebook.

Members of Congress were especially focusing on teenage deaths and depression, largely among young women and girls, resulting from posts and comments on these platforms.

Clearly our laws have not kept up with social media, including their AI and advanced algorithms. Our legislators are currently struggling with how to contain this technology to mitigate its dangers. There is no doubt that future threats from technology will be even more challenging for legislators and regulators.

Suleyman’s view that containment is possible may be overly optimistic. He even concedes that there is compelling evidence that containment is not possible. It’s here where his book represents “a loud call to action.

Nations, technology developers, policymakers, users, and others must immediately recognize the threat that unbridled technological innovation presents. For the sake of humanity, we must start acting now to contain this existential threat. Suleyman persuasively argues that we only have a narrow window within which to contain AI and SB before it is too late.

“The Coming Wave” is a fascinating and, indeed, frightening book. Suleyman is a brilliant visionary, and like Alvin Toffler, and we should heed his warning as the dangers posed by unrestrained AI and SB do not lie in the far distant future.

With the unprecedented rate of technological change, and the decreasing costs that put these technologies within the grasp of bad actors, the time for action is now. Because tomorrow may be too late.

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