An urgent warning of the unprecedented risks that a wave of fast-developing technologies poses to global order, and how we might contain them while we have the chance—from a cofounder of the pioneering artificial intelligence company DeepMind.
Almost every culture has a flood myth.
In ancient Hindu texts, the first man in our universe, Manu, is warned of an impending deluge and becomes its sole survivor. The Epic of Gilgamesh records the god Enlil as destroying the world in a giant flood, a story that will resonate with anyone familiar with the Old Testament story of Noah’s ark. Plato talked of the lost city of Atlantis, washed away in an immense torrent. Permeating humanity’s oral traditions and ancient writings is the idea of a giant wave sweeping everything in its path, leaving the world remade and reborn.
Floods also mark history in a literal sense—the seasonal flooding of the world’s great rivers, the rising of the oceans after the end of the Ice Age, the rare shock of a tsunami appearing without warning on the horizon. The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs created a towering mile-high wave, altering the course of evolution. The sheer power of these swells has seared itself into our collective consciousness: walls of water, unstoppable, uncontrollable, uncontainable. These are some of the most powerful forces on the planet. They shape continents, irrigate the world’s crops, and nurture the growth of civilization.
Other kinds of waves have been just as transformative. Look again at history and you can see it marked by a series of metaphorical waves: the rise and fall of empires and religions, and bursts of commerce. Think of Christianity or Islam, religions that began as small ripples before building and crashing over huge stretches of the earth. Waves like this are a recurrent motif, framing the ebb and flow of history, great power struggles, and economic booms and busts.
The rise and spread of technologies has also taken the form of world-changing waves. A single overriding trend has stood the test of time since the discovery of fire and stone tools, the first technologies harnessed by our species. Almost every foundational technology ever invented, from pickaxes to plows, pottery to photography, phones to planes, and everything in between, follows a single, seemingly immutable law: it gets cheaper and easier to use, and ultimately it proliferates, far and wide.
This proliferation of technology in waves is the story of Homo technologicus—of the technological animal. Humanity’s quest to improve—ourselves, our lot, our abilities, and our influence over our environment—has powered a relentless evolution of ideas and creation. Invention is an unfolding, sprawling, emergent process driven by self-organizing and highly competitive inventors, academics, entrepreneurs, and leaders, each surging forward with their own motivations. This ecosystem of invention defaults to expansion. It is the inherent nature of technology.
The question is, what happens from here? In the pages that follow, I will tell you the story of history’s next great wave.
Look around you.
What do you see? Furniture? Buildings? Phones? Food? A landscaped park? Almost every object in your line of sight has, in all likelihood, been created or altered by human intelligence. Language—the foundation of our social interactions, of our cultures, of our political organizations, and perhaps of what it means to be human—is another product, and driver, of our intelligence. Every principle and abstract concept, every small creative endeavor or project, every encounter in your life, has been mediated by our species’ unique and endlessly complex capacity for imagination, creativity, and reason. Human ingenuity is an astonishing thing.
Only one other force is so omnipresent in this picture: biological life itself. Before the modern age, aside from a few rocks and minerals, most human artifacts—from wooden houses to cotton clothes to coal fires—came from things that were once alive. Everything that has entered the world since then flows from us, flows from the fact that we are biological beings.
It’s no exaggeration to say the entirety of the human world depends on either living systems or our intelligence. And yet both are now in an unprecedented moment of exponential innovation and upheaval, an unparalleled augmentation that will leave little unchanged. Starting to crash around us is a new wave of technology. This wave is unleashing the power to engineer these two universal foundations: a wave of nothing less than intelligence and life.
The coming wave is defined by two core technologies: artificial intelligence (AI) and synthetic biology. Together they will usher in a new dawn for humanity, creating wealth and surplus unlike anything ever seen. And yet their rapid proliferation also threatens to empower a diverse array of bad actors to unleash disruption, instability, and even catastrophe on an unimaginable scale. This wave creates an immense challenge that will define the twenty-first century: our future both depends on these technologies and is imperiled by them.
From where we stand today, it appears that containing this wave—that is, controlling, curbing, or even stopping it—is not possible. This book asks why that might be true and what it means if it is. The implications of these questions will ultimately affect everyone alive and every generation that follows us.
I believe this coming wave of technology is bringing human history to a turning point. If containing it is impossible, the consequences for our species are dramatic, potentially dire. Equally, without its fruits we are exposed and precarious. This is an argument I have made many times over the last decade behind closed doors, but as the impacts become ever more unignorable, it’s time that I make the case publicly.
Excerpted from The Coming Wave: Technology, Power, and the Twenty-First Century's Greatest Dilemma with permission of Crown Publishing Group. Copyright © by Mustafa Suleyman and Michael Bhaskar. All rights reserved.