Book Review: “The Coming Wave” by M Suleyman

How might we understand the confluence of Generative Artificial Intelligence (GAI), Synthetic Biology, and conceive of a habitable future, with ethical considerations of what it means to be human – this books sets out to answer this ambitious question.

The coming wave is defined by two core technologies: GAI and synthetic biology. Together they will usher in a new dawn for humanity, creative wealth and surplus unlike anything ever seen. And yet their rapid proliferationalso threatens to empowera diverse array of bad actors to unleash disruption, instability, and even catastrophye on an unimaginable scale. (pg. 7)

The rest of this book navigates this precarious line, explaining the wealth and opportunities of these two technologies, while also driving home that with containment (a key theme of this book) our world will be unrecognizable in the near future. As I read this book, I felt like I was on a bit of a roller-coaster ride, with optimism and hope one moment, but then despair and worry another. It is not for the faint of heart.


You would be interested in this book if you:
(1) were looking beyond what GAI is in the mainstream media to what is happening on the fringes of Tech
(2) were interested in synthetic biology and how this field is already and will continue to transform humanity at the cellular level
(3) were looking for though-provoking ideas on what some versions of the near-term and far-term future might look, sound and feel like
(4) were an educator looking for ways to understand the world in which your students will grow into

The AI Landscape

Considering that in 2010 next to no one was even talking about AI, let alone Generative AI, it is staggering to think about how quickly it has transformed our lives. As an educator, it is dominating the headlines of Teaching and Learning in schools – mostly on how to stop, curb, curtail, or cut it out in our classrooms; however, there is a growing narrative amongst educators about how to use it to enhance learning.  Since November of 2022 GAI has caused educators to ask a lot of questions, and in my roles I have seen joy and optimism, as well as tears, despair and people leaving their jobs because of this impending impact.

Here is a great interview with the author:

Suleyman’s book is not structured this way, but Mashall McLuhan’s 4 Laws of Media are a really helpful framework to understand this book, its message, and GAI in general. McLuhan is a famous, Canadian Futurist touting the coming of the “Global Village” and that “The Medium is the Message”. His 4 Laws are a simple set of questions to ask ourselves about any technology:

Law #1: What will GAI + Synthetic Biology Enhance?

Pause for a moment and imagine a world where robots with the dexterity of human beings that can be programmed in plain English are available at the price of a microwave. Can you begin to think of all the uses to which such a valuable technology will put? (pg. 157)

Throughout the book, there are many examples of ways that GAI + Synthetic biology will enhance our wellbeing, our quality of life, and its ability to be the tide that raises all boats. From “omni-use”, where GAI and Synthetic biology will be able to generalized to accomplish all things – for example, developing a personalized remedy for your cold or affliction, to making dinner reservations just for you! Efficiencies will abound, and so too will free time, and that free time can be spent boosting your intelligence, playing games, meeting people or bots, entertainment, education, etc…

Law #2: What will GAI + Synthetic Biology make Obsolete?

“For all of history, technology has been “just” a tool,  but what if that tool comes to life?” (pg. 112)

With the advent of CRISPER and humanity’s growing knowledge of the building blocks of life, synthetic biology is transformative to what it means to be human. We can now alter genetic codes, and it is only ethical agreements that are holding back some further advancements (for better or for worse!). It is possible that humans will be reimagined alongside the reimagining of many current practices and social mores. Will humans become obsolete? I don’t believe that that is Suleyman’s argument; however, he does argue that what it means to human will be challenged in the coming wave.

Law #3: What will GAI + Synthetic Biology cause us to Retrieve?

“Our species is not wired to truly grapple with transformation at this scale, let alone the potential that technology might fail us…” (pg. 14)

In many ways, people will put their head in the sand, and long for days of the past, when things were less volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Proliferation of GAI and Synthetic Biology may cause us to close ranks, and tighten our social circles, so that we feel comfortable with a trusted network, of information and of people that are “real”.

In this way, we are already yearning for a simpler future, one that is understandable. We may see schools as a place where GAI is not welcome, as we protect our students thinking development from being curtailed by GAI. But a similar argument was put forward with the advent of the calculator and internet, was it not?

Law #4: What will GAI + Synthetic Biology Reverse into?

These Fragility Amplifiers (of GAI and Synthetic Biology), system shocks, emergence 2.0, will greatly exacerbate existing challenges, shaking the state’s foundation, upsetting our already precarious social balance. (pg. 163)

If Suleyman is correct in his hypothesis that (Life + Intelligence) x Energy = Modern Civilization, then the argument here is that if you mix in technology to amplify Modern Civilization, through GAI and Synthetic Biology, then you would get more. However, what he argues is that if you change the equation to read:

(Life + Intelligence) + (Synthetic Life + Artificial Intelligence) x Energy = Fragile Civilization

We could have technology change our world in a direction that makes civilization crumble, that make nation states evaporate. Thus, our world will literally reverse itself into chaos.

What is the Message?

Sulyman argues persuasively for Containmentthat we have been provided the timing, the pathways, and the ability to work together in this global village to establish ways of doing, being and knowing that can help curb bad actors, ensure a measured use of GAI over time, and generate a sustainable future.

We need our generation’s equivalent of the nuclear treaty to shape a common worldwide approach…This would put clear limits on what work is undertaken, mediate among national licensing efforts, and create a framework for reviewing both. (pg. 266)

The great meta-problem of our time, which was not a major issue for most of humanity 3 years ago, is the containment of GAI proliferation. Throughout this book, Suleyman offers a solid rationale, as well as some ways we might achieve it.

In closing, throughout the book, there are passages of beauty and hope, but even these are tainted and not all rosey. Which I appreciate. For example:

Think of world populated by trees that are longer lived, and aboseb much greatwer amounts of CO2. Or Phytoplanktons that help the ocean become a greater and more sustainable carbon sink. AI has helped design an enzyme that can break down the plastic clogging our oceans. It will also be nan important part of how we predict what is coming, from guessing where a wildfire might hit suburbia to tracking deforestation through public data sets. This will be a world of cheap, personalized drugs; fast, accurate diagnoses; and AI-generated replacements for energy-intensive fertilizers.

See, it’s not that beautiful is it? It’s hopeful, but there is still the garbage, there is still the illness. We can’t technology our way out of our problems, and so at the heart of it all, I still believe that this technological transformation is and will remain, at its heart, a very human challenge.

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