The Coming Wave: Technology, Power, and the 21st Century’s Greatest Dilemma

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The Coming Wave: Technology, Power, and the 21st Century’s Greatest Dilemma by Mustafa Suleyman with Michael Bhaskar. Crown Publishing Group, 2023, 352 pp.

The Coming Wave is a futurist nonfiction science and technology book by Mustafa Suleyman. Suleyman is the co-founder of two artificial intelligence (AI) companies, DeepMind and Inflection AI, and has held multiple AI development and policy positions throughout his career. The Coming Wave attempts to stand out among a multitude of emergent technology books written within the past year with its take on how an ensuing technological revolution will result in a far more dramatic impact on humanity than any other in history. Though it offers valuable insights, the book overstates the threat of AI and synthetic biology while proposing containment options that Suleyman admits are unrealistic to implement.

The foundational premise of The Coming Wave is that throughout history, there have been “waves” of technological advancement with reverberating effects that altered the course of human history. Suleyman delineates 24 previous general-purpose technologies that have indiscriminately diffused across the globe, with the 25th currently in progress. He argues that preceding waves ranging from the discovery of fire to the proliferation of the internet have not been as disruptive to human technological evolution as the impending wave, which combines AI and synthetic biology. A convergence of large-scale knowledge systems with genetic modification, as he proposes, will transform the world at an unprecedented pace and with far-reaching, irreversible consequences. Suleyman supports this claim by highlighting the effect economies of scale are having on the increased availability of these technologies. Specifically, he notes the relative ease of acquiring advanced genetic testing equipment that is enabling the establishment of hobbyist biological labs, akin to the early ‘90s tech sector garage startups. While still a well-intentioned niche market, these homegrown experimentation centers augmented by emergent AI systems could accelerate radical pursuits of human genome modification with potentially disastrous results.

In supporting the premise that the world is amid the next large-scale transformation, Suleyman thoroughly covers numerous examples of previous technologies expanding beyond their original intended use and being adapted for other purposes. This is being played out in the current wave through the widespread adoption and adaptation of large language models (LLM) for uses that promote knowledge discovery and application for both good and bad. The author posits that recent advancements in AI will follow an exponential trajectory, leading to a redistribution of wealth and power that could disrupt the existing geopolitical order in favor of small nation-states and nonstate actors. This redistribution would give ambitious actors the ability to not only fund but also rapidly develop and scale capabilities favoring their ideological use cases.

This background effectively establishes the foundation for Suleyman’s argument for containing the impending technological wave and limiting its potentially disastrous effects. Yet Suleyman immediately undermines his efforts to rally humanity to his cause by highlighting that previous technological containment has largely failed. One example he provides is the Ottoman Empire’s thwarted attempt to restrict the effects of the printing press, specifically to ban Arabic writing.

Acknowledging the complexity of the task at hand, the author primarily focuses on topics that present a worst-case scenario and neglects substantive discussions on the positive aspects of the technology. For example, his proposed vision of deep surveillance states or an “East India Trading Company” consolidation of corporate influence, while plausible, is representative of a superficial omission of incremental adaptation of these technologies as an opportunity for divergent outcomes. Ultimately, Suleyman’s attempts to include counterarguments to the overly pessimistic stance are not as impactful as the arguments for a worst-case scenario and, in the end, do not provide enough balance to overcome the alarmist tone. These views also neglect to support a relevant way forward.

The author proposes 10 steps to contain the rapid expansion of technology, ranging from technological safeguards and government regulation to cultural changes and large-scale movements. Most, if not all, of these steps are grandiose and largely unattainable because of the bureaucracy and cost associated with implementing them. The author rightly acknowledges the near impossibility of such an effort, but admirably persists in his recommendation anyway. While the steps for containment have solid support, they should not be viewed as the ultimate guide. Instead, as he mentions in chapter 13, these steps should serve as a catalyst for further conversation.

As a thought experiment based on the content in the book, I asked Google’s latest LLM, Gemini Advanced, if it agreed with the arguments presented in the book. Its output: “It’s difficult to give a definitive yes or no to whether I agree fully with The Coming Wave.” It then explained why it could not fully agree or disagree: “I don’t form my own beliefs or opinions in the same way a human does. I process information and provide responses based on patterns and probabilities in the data I’ve been trained on.”1

These responses illustrate two concepts from the book. The first is an attempt at technological containment by putting guardrails in place to control the output from LLMs. The second is the drive for corporate-aligned interests and protectionism by preventing copyright material from being used. There is movement in the right direction, as Suleyman states, and his steps to containment are a starting point. Ultimately, the author’s assessments, based on research and personal experience, are well-intentioned. But the future is incredibly difficult to predict, and this next wave as he describes it may or may not come to pass.

The book tends to be a bit repetitive throughout and seems to emphasize the main points with excessive reasoning. This over-justification tends to be monotonous and can read as a desperate attempt to support the book’s main stance. This does little to help Suleyman overcome the tendency common among leaders to reject narratives seen as negative—what he calls “pessimism aversion”—which he seeks to avoid. Furthermore, as Suleyman comes primarily from an AI background, detailed discussions of synthetic biology are missing from the text, which can at times cause a lack of focus and distraction when the subject is briefly reintroduced.

Still, Suleyman presents solid and extensively researched concepts that provide an ideal starting point for discussing the proper implementation of this new technological frontier. While The Coming Wave presents valuable insights, it ultimately tends to be overly alarmist and is unlikely to attract a wide audience outside of technologist communities.

Captain Brad Worley, USAF

1 Text generated by Gemini, Google, February 4, 2024, https://gemini.google.com/.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."