AI and the next great tech shift

Book review by John Thornhill: “When the South Korean political activist Kim Dae-jung was jailed for two years in the early 1980s, he powered his way through some 600 books in his prison cell, such was his thirst for knowledge. One book that left a lasting impression was The Third Wave by the renowned futurist Alvin Toffler, who argued that an imminent information revolution was about to transform the world as profoundly as the preceding agricultural and industrial revolutions.

“Yes, this is it!” Kim reportedly exclaimed. When later elected president, Kim referred to the book many times in his drive to turn South Korea into a technological powerhouse.

Forty-three years after the publication of Toffler’s book, another work of sweeping futurism has appeared with a similar theme and a similar name. Although the stock in trade of futurologists is to highlight the transformational and the unprecedented, it is remarkable how much of their output appears the same.

The chief difference is that The Coming Wave by Mustafa Suleyman focuses more narrowly on the twin revolutions of artificial intelligence and synthetic biology. But the author would surely be delighted if his book were to prove as influential as Toffler’s in prompting politicians to action.

As one of the three co-founders of DeepMind, the London-based AI research company founded in 2010, and now chief executive of the AI start-up Inflection, Suleyman has been at the forefront of the industry for more than a decade. The Coming Wave bristles with breathtaking excitement about the extraordinary possibilities that the revolutions in AI and synthetic biology could bring about.

AI, we are told, could unlock the secrets of the universe, cure diseases and stretch the bounds of imagination. Biotechnology can enable us to engineer life and transform agriculture. “Together they will usher in a new dawn for humanity, creating wealth and surplus unlike anything ever seen,” he writes.

But what is striking about Suleyman’s heavily promoted book is how the optimism of his will is overwhelmed by the pessimism of his intellect, to borrow a phrase from the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. For most of history, the challenge of technology has been to unleash its power, Suleyman writes. Now the challenge has flipped.

In the 21st century, the dilemma will be how to contain technology’s power given the capabilities of these new technologies have exploded and the costs of developing them have collapsed. “Containment is not, on the face of it, possible. And yet for all our sakes, containment must be possible,” he writes…(More)”.

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