Digital Economy Dispatch #163 -- The Hope for AI's Coming Wave

Digital Economy Dispatch #163 -- The Hope for AI's Coming Wave
24th December 2023

There is a large part of me that wishes I’d never read this book. In a world filled with crisis and chaos, sometimes there are just too many things to worry about. The last thing I needed was to be worried that we’re all doomed. Do I really need more things that make me lose sleep at night? But, here I am on the other side of having worked my way through Mustafa Suleyman’s new book, The Coming Wave, and realizing like Neo in The Matrix that I can’t go back in time to those carefree days before I knew. Somehow, I’m going to have to deal with today’s new reality.

OK, maybe I’m going a bit over the top. However, there is no doubt that Suleyman’s book is a shock to the senses. His exploration of AI provides insight into the extent of the AI’s deep impact. A visceral reminder that with great power comes great responsibility. And when it comes to the current digital revolution, it is far from clear that we have things under control. Or worse, that it is controllable at all.

At the core of the book, Suleyman addresses two big advances that he believes will shape our future: AI and synthetic biology. Both, he believes, are accelerating rapidly bringing capabilities that will change humanity for good and bad. Surrounded by a set of supporting advances (such as quantum computing), they require us to reassess where we are going and whether we will be able to remain in control throughout the journey. The answer is a definite “maybe”.

AI Through the Looking Glass

We all know that the AI cat is well and truly out of the bag. For the past months, endless product announcements, press releases, blog posts, and industry commentaries have been trying to convince every business leader that “invest more in AI” should be at the top of their 2024 To-Do lists. Yet even those responsible for some of the major breakthroughs in AI are beginning to worry that this may be too much too soon. In May 2023, Geoffrey Hinton, the so-called “godfather of AI”, issued a warning about the dangers of AI issuing misinformation and being misused. At the same time Yoshua Bengio, another key figure in AI’s development, declared he “felt lost” over his life’s work and its impact.

Now we have Mustapha Suleyman’s voice being added to these warnings. He is one of the co-founders of the influential DeepMind Lab, a company that was pushing the boundaries of AI use for several years before being acquired by Google in 2014. Then, as part of Google, it rose to fame in 2016 with the release of AlphaGo, an AI system to play Go which shocked the world when it beat the former professional Go world champion.

The core of Suleyman's new book is a broad exploration of the impact of AI on society, particularly focusing on its ethical implications and the urgent need for responsible AI development. Suleyman offers a very clear review of the broad positive impacts of AI and its transformative potential while warning against its unchecked proliferation. The book navigates us through the complexities of AI, dissecting its role in reshaping industries, economies, and governance structures worldwide. Given his background, it is no surprise that Suleyman is at his best when describing the history, principles, and characteristics of the key milestones in AI’s development over the past few years. The book is work reading for that alone.

However, this book offers much more beyond the usual over blown description and commentary on how AI will be part of everyone’s future. Suleyman’s main focus is on the ethical considerations that arise from the rapid advancement of AI technologies. He concludes that the power that is provided by the coming wave of AI requires ethical guidelines and regulations to govern its development and deployment. Drawing from his own experiences at DeepMind, Suleyman presents a compelling case for the need to prioritize ethical frameworks and societal impact assessments in the creation of AI systems. His insights urge both academia and business leaders to take proactive measures in ensuring AI serves humanity's best interests.

Ultimately, Suleyman's book serves as a valuable summary of the recent history and current state of AI, and presents a personal review of the ethical issues surrounding a responsible approach to AI aimed at provoking critical discussions among academics, policy makers, and business leaders. He emphasises the need for collaboration across these domains to navigate the impending AI wave responsibly. Essentially, "The Coming Wave" is a warning to humankind. It stands as a call to action, urging stakeholders to prioritize ethical considerations, regulation, and social responsibility in the development and deployment of AI technologies for a more equitable and sustainable future.

How to Train Your Dragon

As you would expect in such a book, “The Coming Wave” takes you on quite a journey, addressing several themes and covering many ideas related to the future of AI. With reference to other technology-led revolutions, he concludes that the key challenge we face today is one of containment. He uses this concept to underscore the need for careful management and responsible development of powerful technologies like AI.

While the term "containment" might evoke images of technological lockdown, his stance on managing AI's power is far more nuanced. He doesn't advocate for absolute control, but rather for a proactive approach to mitigating risks and maximizing benefits. This approach hinges on two key pillars: responsible development and adaptability.

Firstly, Suleyman calls for embedding ethical frameworks within the fabric of AI creation. This goes beyond the rush for technical excellence and demands a profound consideration of societal impact, potential biases, and issues of accountability. We must ask ourselves: what are the human costs of this technological juggernaut, and how can we ensure AI serves humanity, not subjugates it?

Secondly, Suleyman recognizes that the AI landscape is constantly evolving, and so must our strategies for managing it. He argues for adaptive containment, a flexible approach that allows us to adjust our control mechanisms as the technology develops. This could involve regulating specific applications, slowing down certain advancements, or even temporarily halting deployment if unforeseen dangers emerge.

It's crucial to understand that containment, in Suleyman's view, isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. It's a tool in the toolbox, reserved for situations where responsible development and ethical safeguards fall short. Ultimately, his focus lies on steering the AI surge towards a positive future through responsible development, collaboration, and a willingness to adapt our strategies as needed.

The Shifting Gears of AI

Overall, Mustafa Suleyman's "The Coming Wave" presents a compelling analysis of the challenges and opportunities posed by AI. While the book's title and dramatic narrative can lead to sleepless nights, its core message is intended as a wakeup call to humanity. Rather than drive us to despair, his wish is that it encourages thoughtful reflection and proactive engagement with the complex issues surrounding AI development and deployment.

What can we take away from Suleyman’s book that brings us hope? His work highlights four key areas that warrant particular attention from leaders, decision takers, policy makers, and academics.

  1. Acknowledge the Limits of AI Prowess: While AI's capabilities are undeniably impressive, it is crucial to remember its inherent limitations. Yes, it can beat Go champions and write poetry, but unchecked, it can also spew misinformation and widen the inequality gap. Approach AI with caution, acknowledging its limits. Overreliance on AI without due consideration for its potential biases and ethical implications can lead to unintended consequences. Humility and a critical understanding of AI's strengths and weaknesses are essential for responsible development and deployment.

  2. Prioritize Ethical Frameworks: The pursuit of technological advancement should not overshadow the need for robust ethical frameworks. Forget the "build it first, think later" approach. Weave ethics into the fabric of AI development. Ask tough questions: who benefits, who loses? Ethical considerations must be embedded within all of AI development, guiding decisions at every stage. This requires a shift from a purely results-oriented approach to one that prioritizes human well-being and societal impact assessments.

  3. Face up to the Automation Dilemma: The potential for widespread job displacement due to AI automation cannot be ignored. For many people, the spectre of mass job displacement looms large in the shadow of AI automation. It is essential to confront this reality and to mitigate its consequences. Proactive measures such as retraining programs, exploring alternative income models, and rethinking the social contract are necessary to mitigate negative consequences and ensure a smooth transition for individuals and communities impacted by automation.

  4. Foster Global Collaboration: The challenges posed by AI are global in nature and require a concerted international effort to address them effectively. Open dialogue, knowledge sharing, and collaborative action among academics, policymakers, and business leaders are crucial for navigating the complex landscape of AI development and ensuring its responsible and beneficial application.

The "Coming Wave" will be significant in all of our lives, and Suleyman’s book serves as a valuable call to all of us to engage critically with the evolving field of AI. This book compels us to look into the darker corners of AI, and to rise to the challenge to become not just consumers of AI, but responsible stewards of its future. The coming wave of AI is upon us, but it doesn't have to be a tsunami. By prioritizing ethics, embracing responsible regulation, and preparing for the inevitable, we can ride this wave and not be swept away by it.