The Coming Wave

Frank Diana
5 min readSep 28, 2023

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.

Mustafa Suleyman — The Coming Wave

That quote from a book published this month is closely aligned with the compelling argument made by the authors of The Fourth Turning. While the latter book describes rebirth in the context of generational turns, this one views it through the lens of AI and Synthetic Biology. The Coming Wave comes to us from Mustafa Suleyman, the Co-Founder of DeepMind. The author defines a wave as a set of technologies coming together around the same time, powered by one or several new general-purpose technologies with profound societal implications. Thinking back, one major study found that twenty-four general-purpose technologies have emerged over the entire span of human history. Artificial intelligence and synthetic biology are likely to add to that number. The question I have asked in a poll is this: will they be more profound in their impact then previous technologies? Consider that fire, language, writing, electricity, the printing press, the steam engine, the Internet, the domestication of plants and animals, and the wheel, are all on the list. To even be considered among that list speaks volumes. But to be thinking in terms of most profound?

Mr. Suleyman sees the convergence of these technologies ushering in a new dawn for humanity, creating wealth and surplus unlike anything ever seen. That’s the good news. However, those same forces of convergence can result in catastrophe — and therein lies the dilemma. He explores both sides of this 21st century challenge. From the role that technology has played in staving off societal collapse, to the societal gains that are possible as the wave accelerates. All while describing scenarios of catastrophe that may await us. He states it succinctly: “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.” Mr. Suleyman sees this as a turning point in human history — something that I have explored in my work on tipping points. No matter the lens the outcome is the same — a time in human history where we pass through a gate, where everything we thought we understood about our world is unraveled. To the casual observer, this sounds like hype, but to people at the forefront — like our author — they are very real. In his words, the speed and power of this new revolution has been surprising even to those of us closest to its cutting edge. At the heart of this storytelling lies a universal truth:

With their enormous geostrategic and commercial value, it’s difficult to see how nation-states or corporations will be persuaded to unilaterally give up the transformative powers unleashed by these breakthroughs. Moreover, attempting to ban development of new technologies is itself a risk: technologically stagnant societies are historically unstable and prone to collapse. Eventually, they lose the capacity to solve problems, to progress.

Mustafa Suleyman — The Coming Wave

Our current incentive structures work against establishing effective governance at a level that allows us to enhance humanity while blocking the forces that diminish it, and those forces are democratizing. In the context of synthetic biology, a single person today likely “has the capacity to kill a billion people.” All it takes is motivation. This is no simple dilemma. The book explores in compelling detail, attributes of this wave, including a redistribution of power and the strain placed on the nation state. One powerful example from the book:

“Americans and Israelis use $3 million Patriot missiles to shoot down drones worth a couple hundred dollars. These developments represent a colossal transfer of power away from traditional states and militaries toward anyone with the capacity, and motivation, to deploy these devices.”

This potential transfer of power further complicates discussions of containment. If we look at human history, the governance model established by the nation state represents a small piece of that history. The author poses the question: can the nation state survive? Will the redistribution of power have corporations performing governance roles and delivering services traditionally provided by the state? These questions along with examples like the one above are explored throughout the book. Beyond the question of containment and governance is a question of what it means to be human. I believe a true tipping point for humanity is defined as a moment where the nature of being human is changed. We have had two or three true tipping points in the course of human history, with the shift from hunter-gatherer to agriculture being one such example. However, driving these tips were previous waves of general-purpose technology that had limits, and those limits are being breached.

For the first time core components of our technological ecosystem directly address two foundational properties of our world: intelligence and life.

Mustafa Suleyman — The Coming Wave

The co-existence and acceleration of both AI and synthetic biology is unique in the annals of general-purpose technology. While AI (intelligence) is getting a lot of attention, synthetic biology (life) deserves similar focus and attention. Each is massively impactful — but together? It is this combination that prompts the author to speak to the need for containment, and when we view these two forces collectively — it’s not hard to see why. He views containment as a set of guardrails that keep humanity in the driver’s seat when technology risks causing more harm than good.

No wave of technology has, so far, been contained. It is a point so obvious it doesn’t often get mentioned: there is no central authority controlling what technologies get developed, who does it, and for what purpose; technology is an orchestra with no conductor. Yet this single fact could end up being the most significant of the twenty-first century.

Mustafa Suleyman — The Coming Wave

He sees this as only the beginning of a convergence of these two technologies. The bio-revolution is coevolving with advances in AI and will rely on it to further evolve. As he says, think of two waves crashing together, not a wave but a super-wave. When we factor in the physical manifestation of AI through robotics, we have a massive super-wave. In Mr. Suleyman’s telling, if AI represents the automation of information, robotics is the automation of the material, the physical instantiations of AI, a step change in what it is possible to do. As the wave accelerates toward us, he believes the obvious answer at this stage is to propose creating a global institution devoted to technology — global challenges require global focus.

As with the many other books in my Library, this book comes along at a time when the message is critical, and our attention required. I thank this author and all those coming forward to drive awareness. I highly recommend it!

Originally published at http://frankdiana.net on September 28, 2023.

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Frank Diana

TCS Executive focused on the rapid evolution of society and business. Fascinated by the view of the world in the next decade and beyond https://frankdiana.net/