The Coming Wave review: AI promises are free cheese in a mousetrap

It might not be a wave but rather a tsunami, leaving us to rebuild our lives from scratch and reimagine the world and humanity itself.

Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder of DeepMind and the author of The Coming Wave (co-author Michael Bhaskar), says the coming wave is defined by two core technologies – AI and synthetic biology. Think of things like gene editing and longevity. Think about bets on technologies like cellular rejuvenation and how living a long and healthy life might disrupt already aging economies.

And think AI. Think artificial intelligence not defined by AI-written texts or AI-generated Shrimp Jesuses on Facebook. Think bigger – AI disrupting the job market, accelerating drug research, and fueling surveillance. Think about the merging of AI and synthetic biology, of brain-machine interfaces, and think about the end of the world as we know it.

"Together, they will usher in a new dawn for humanity, creating wealth and surplus unlike anything ever seen," the book reads.

The problem is that even the founding fathers of these AI systems, like Suleyman himself, can't tell where the world is headed.

In his book, he admits that technologies surprise "even their creators with the speed and power of their development."

What he seems to know for sure is that it's going to be as big, if not bigger, as the previous technological waves that brought not only great inventions like steam machines and electricity but also sow mayhem and disruption anywhere.

What is more, even anticipating catastrophic outcomes, we – well, the profit-driven world that we inhabit – won't be able to resist it because of the strategic potential, profit, and prestige.

Given Suleyman's input into the research and development of AI systems – he's recently been hired by Microsoft to build AI for them – the book reads like a public cry not to ignore AI and think about ways to contain it.

A huge chunk of the book is dedicated to simply explaining how huge this next wave is going to be. Suleyman does it by making comparisons to previous technological ways and hypothesizing scenarios of what this current technological wave could bring.

Suleyman talks about the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century and how they failed because, essentially, societies could not be bent into shape because they were always messy and ungovernable. However, now, technologies make it possible to create massive surveillance – which essentially means control – systems.

You don't need to go as far as China – think about all the smart devices you have, all the face and license plate-recognition cameras you pass, Ring doorbells, and all the data that corporations like Google and Facebook have on you. Even data on your DNA is out there.

"History's most powerful set of technologies under the command of a single body would rewrite the limits of state power so comprehensively that it would produce a new kind of entity altogether," Suleyman writes.

The panopticon, once only known from George Orwell's 1984 or Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, now becomes possible.

Like that wouldn't be enough, the technology of this new age is accessible to everyone.

"Never before have so many had access to such advanced technologies capable of inflicting death and mayhem," Audrey Kurth Cronin, a famous security expert, is quoted in the book.

At the same time, the coming wave will be the greatest accelerant of wealth and prosperity. We'll all have the world's best team at our disposal, as Suleyman argues, as everyone will soon have equal access to lawyers, interior designers, doctors, coaches, etc.

It will be chaotic, though, and technology is evolving faster than "defensive" measures. So, Suleyman dedicates a big part of the book to looking for ways and measures to contain technology.

He doesn't put his bets on regulation and argues for a holistic approach instead. While regulation is important, he acknowledges that governments mostly put out fires and can't really regulate things they don't anticipate as this is an "age of surprises."

The holistic approach proposed by the book encompasses ten steps, including audits, international alliances, treaties similar to climate or nuclear agreements, and mindful societies.

If the coming wave is really going to be a tsunami, it's time we took our heads out of the sand.