By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
The Ramifications Of Artificial Intelligence Part One
Artificial intelligence (AI) is machines' ability to perform tasks typically associated with human intelligence, such as learning and problem-solving.
Today, AI systems can almost perfectly recognize faces and objects. We take speech-to-text transcription and instant language translation for granted. AI can navigate roads and traffic well enough to drive autonomously in some settings. A new generation of AI models can generate novel images and compose text with extraordinary levels of detail and coherence based on a few simple prompts. AI systems can produce synthetic voices with uncanny realism and compose music of stunning beauty. Progress leaps forward even in more challenging domains that are long thought to be uniquely suited to human capabilities like long-term planning, imagination, and simulation of complex ideas.
AI has been climbing the ladder of cognitive abilities for decades, and it now looks set to reach human-level performance across an extensive range of tasks within the next three years. That is a big claim, but if I’m even close to right, the implications are truly profound. What had, when we founded DeepMind, felt quixotic has become not just plausible but seemingly inevitable.
Beyond AI, a broader revolution was underway, with AI feeding a powerful, emerging generation of genetic technologies and robotics. Further progress in one area accelerates the others in a chaotic and cross-catalyzing process beyond anyone’s direct control. It was clear that if we or others were successful in replicating human intelligence, this wasn’t just profitable business as usual but a seismic shift for humanity, inaugurating an era when unusual risks would match unprecedented opportunities.
AI, synthetic biology, and other advanced forms of technology produce tail risks on a deeply concerning scale. They could present an existential threat to nation-states—risks so profound they might disrupt or overturn the current geopolitical order. They open pathways to immense AI-empowered cyberattacks, automated wars that could devastate countries, engineered pandemics, and a world subject to unexplainable yet seemingly omnipotent forces. The likelihood of each may be small, but the possible consequences are huge. Even a slim chance of outcomes like these requires urgent attention.
Some countries will react to the possibility of such catastrophic risks with technologically charged authoritarianism to slow the spread of these new powers. This will require huge surveillance levels and massive intrusions into our private lives. Keeping a tight rein on technology could become part of a drift to everything and everyone being watched constantly in a dystopian global surveillance system justified by a desire to guard against the most extreme possible outcomes.
Equally plausible is a Luddite reaction. Bans, boycotts, and moratoriums will ensue. Is it possible to stop developing new technologies and introduce a series of moratoriums? Unlikely. With their enormous geostrategic and commercial value, it isn’t easy to see how nation-states or corporations will be persuaded to give up the transformative powers unleashed by these breakthroughs unilaterally. Moreover, attempting to ban new technologies' development is risky: technologically stagnant societies are historically unstable and prone to collapse. Eventually, they lose the capacity to solve problems and progress.
From here, pursuing and not pursuing new technologies is fraught with risk. The chances of muddling through a “narrow path” and avoiding one or the other outcome—techno-authoritarian dystopia on the one hand, openness-induced catastrophe on the other—grow smaller over time as the technology becomes cheaper, more powerful and more pervasive, and the risks accumulate. And yet, stepping away is no option either. Even as we worry about their risks, we need the incredible benefits of the technologies of the coming wave more than ever. This is the core dilemma: that, sooner or later, a powerful generation of technology leads humanity toward either catastrophic or dystopian outcomes.
Pessimism aversion is an emotional response, an ingrained gut refusal to accept the possibility of seriously destabilizing outcomes. It tends to come from those in secure and powerful positions with entrenched worldviews, who can superficially cope with change but struggle to accept any real challenge to their world order. Many of those I accuse of being stuck in the pessimism-aversion trap fully embrace the growing critiques of technology. But they nod along without actually taking any action. We’ll manage; we always do, they say.
Spend time in tech or policy circles, and it quickly becomes obvious that head-in-the-sand is the default ideology. To believe and act otherwise risks becoming so crippled by fear of and outrage against enormous, inexorable forces that everything feels futile. So the strange intellectual half-world of pessimism aversion rumbles on.
Waves are everywhere in human life. This one is just the latest. People often seem to think it’s still far off, so futuristic and absurd-sounding that it’s just the province of a few nerds and fringe thinkers, more hyperbole, technobabble, and boosterism. That’s a mistake. This is as real as the tsunami coming from the open blue ocean.
Technologies can and should enrich our lives; historically, it bears repeating the inventors and entrepreneurs behind them have been powerful drivers of progress, improving living standards for billions of us.
But without containment, every other aspect of technology, every discussion of its ethical shortcomings or the benefits it could bring, is inconsequential. We urgently need watertight answers for how the coming wave can be controlled and how the safeguards and affordances of the democratic nation-state can be maintained, but right now, no one has such a plan. This is a future that none of us want, but it’s one I fear is increasingly likely, and I will explain why.
The various technologies I’m speaking of share four key features that explain why this isn’t business as usual: they are inherently general and therefore omni-use, they hyper-evolve, they have asymmetric impacts, and, in some respects, they are increasingly autonomous.
Their creation is driven by powerful incentives: geopolitical competition, massive financial rewards, and an open, distributed research culture. Scores of state and non-state actors will race ahead to develop them regardless of efforts to regulate and control what’s coming, taking risks that affect everyone, whether we like it or not.
The nation-state is the foundation of our present political order—and the most critical factor in the containment of technologies. But as we next see, already rocked by crises, it will be further weakened by a series of waves amplified by the wave: the potential for new forms of violence, a flood of misinformation, disappearing jobs, and the prospect of catastrophic accidents.
Further out, the wave will force a set of tectonic power shifts, simultaneously centralizing and decentralizing. This will create vast new enterprises, buttress authoritarianism, and empower groups and movements to live outside traditional social structures. The delicate bargain of the nation-state will be placed under immense strain when we need institutions like it most. This is how we end up in a dilemma.
A question will be, is there even a slim chance for containment, for wriggling out of the dilemma? If so, how? In this section, we outline ten steps, working out from the code and DNA level to the international treaties level, forming a complex, nested set of constraints, and an outline plan for containment.
Given that nation-states are charged with managing and regulating the impact of technology in the best interests of their populations, how prepared are they for what’s to come? If the state cannot coordinate the containment of this wave and cannot ensure it is of net benefit to its citizens, what options does that leave humanity in the medium to long term?
Since 2010, more countries have slid backward on measures of democracy than have progressed, a process that appears to be accelerating. Rising nationalism and authoritarianism seem endemic, from Poland and China to Russia, Hungary, the Philippines, and Turkey. Populist movements range from the bizarre, like QAnon, to the directionless (the gilets jaunes in France). However, from Bolsonaro in Brazil to Brexit in the U.K., their prominence on the world stage has been impossible to miss.
Behind the new authoritarian impulse and political instability lies a growing pool of social resentment. A key catalyst of instability11 and social resentment, inequality has surged across Western nations in recent decades, and nowhere more so than in the United States. Between 1980 and 2021(link)the share of national income earned by the top 1 percent has almost doubled and now sits just under 50 percent. Wealth is ever more concentrated in a tiny clique. Government policy, a shrinking 14 working-age population, stalling educational levels, and decelerating long-term growth have all contributed to decisively more unequal societies. Forty million people in the United States15 live in poverty, and more than five million live in “Third World conditions”—all within the world’s most prosperous economy.
These are especially worrying trends16 when considering persistent relationships between social immobility, widening inequality, and political violence. Across data from more than one hundred countries, evidence suggests that the lower a country’s social mobility, the more it experiences upheavals like riots, strikes, assassinations, revolutionary campaigns, and civil wars. When people feel stuck, that others are unfairly hogging the rewards, they get angry.
Every previous wave of technology has had profound political implications. We should expect the same in the future. The last wave—the arrival of mainframes, desktop PCs and desktop software, the internet, and the smartphone—greatly benefited society. It laid down the new tools for the modern economy, bolstering growth and transforming access to knowledge, entertainment, and one another. Amid the present hand-wringing about the adverse effects of social media, it’s easy to overlook these myriad positives. Yet over the last decade, a growing consensus suggests these technologies did something else: creating the conditions to feed and amplify this underlying political polarization and institutional fragility.
It’s hardly news that social media platforms can trigger emotional responses, the jolts of adrenaline effectively delivered by perceived threats. Social media thrives on heightened emotions and, quite often, outrage. A meta-analysis published(note) in the journal Nature reviewed the results of nearly five hundred studies, concluding a clear correlation between the growing use of digital media and rising distrust in politics, populist movements, hate, and polarization. Correlation may not be causation, but this systematic review throws up “clear evidence of serious threats to democracy” from new technologies.
Technology has eroded nation-states' stable, sovereign borders, creating or supporting innately global flows of people, information, ideas, know-how, commodities, finished goods, capital, and wealth. As we have seen, it is a significant component of geopolitical strategy. It touches on almost every aspect of people’s lives. Even before the coming wave hits, technology is a driver on the world stage, a significant factor in the deteriorating health of nation-states worldwide. Too fast in its development, too global, too protean and enticing for any simple model of containment, strategically critical, relied upon by billions, modern technology itself is a prime actor, a monumental force nation-states struggle to manage. AI, synthetic biology, and the rest are being introduced to dysfunctional societies already rocked back and forth on technological waves of immense power. This is not a world ready for the coming wave. This is a world buckling under the existing strain.
As the historian of technology Langdon Winner puts it, “Technology in its various manifestations is a significant part of the human world. Its structures, processes, and alterations become part of the structures, processes, and alterations of human consciousness, society, and politics.” In other words, technology is political. This fact is radically under-recognized by our leaders and those building the technology. At times, this subtle but omnipresent politicization is nearly invisible. It shouldn’t be. Social media is the most recent reminder that technology and political organization cannot be divorced. States and technologies are intimately tied together. This has important ramifications for what’s coming.
While technology doesn’t simplistically push people in a predetermined direction, it’s not naive techno-determinism to recognize its tendency to afford certain capabilities or see how it prompts some outcomes over others. In this, technology is one of the key determinants of history, but never alone and in a mechanistic, inherently predictable way. It doesn’t superficially cause given behaviors or outcomes, but what it produces does guide or circumscribe possibilities.
War, peace, commerce, political order, culture—these have always been fundamentally interlinked and interlinked with technology. Technologies are ideas manifested in products and services that have profound and lasting consequences for people, social structures, the environment, and everything in between.
Modern technology and the state evolved symbiotically, in constant dialogue. Think of how technology facilitated the state’s core working parts, helping construct the edifice of national identity and administration. Writing was invented as an administrative and accounting tool to keep track of debts, inheritances, laws, taxes, contracts, and ownership records. The clock produced set times, first in limited spaces like monasteries but then in mechanical form across late medieval mercantile cities and eventually across nations, creating common and ever larger social units. The printing press helped standardize national languages from the chaos of dialects and thus helped produce a national “imagined community,” the unitary people behind a nation-state. Supplanting more fluid oral traditions, the printed word fixed geography, knowledge, and history in place, promulgating set legal codes and ideologies. Radio and TV turbocharged this process, creating moments of national and even international commonality experienced simultaneously, like FDR’s fireside chats or the World Cup.
Weapons, too, are technologies central to the power wielded by nation-states. Indeed, theorists of the state often suggest that war itself was foundational to its creation (in the words of the political scientist Charles Tilly, “War made the state and the state made war”), just as conflict has always been a spur to new technologies—from chariots and metal armor to radar and the advanced chips that guide precision munitions. Introduced to Europe in the thirteenth century, gunpowder broke the old pattern of defensive medieval castles. Fortified settlements were now sitting ducks for bombardment. During the Hundred Years’ War between Britain and France, offensive capabilities gave the advantage to those who could afford to buy, build, maintain, move, and deploy capital-intensive cannons. Over the years, the state concentrated ever-increasing lethal power in its own hands, claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
Put, technology and political order are intimately connected. The introduction of new technologies has significant political consequences. Just as the cannon and the printing press upended society, we should expect the same from technologies like AI, robotics, and synthetic biology.
What emerges will tend in two directions with a spectrum of outcomes in between. On one trajectory, some liberal23 democratic states will continue to be eroded from within, becoming a kind of zombie government. Trappings of liberal democracy and the traditional nation-state remain, but functionally, they are hollowed out, the core services increasingly threadbare, the polity unstable and fractious. Lurching on without anything else, they become ever more degraded and dysfunctional. On another, unthinking adoption of some aspects of the coming wave opens pathways to domineering state control, creating supercharged Leviathans whose power goes beyond even history’s most extreme totalitarian governments. Authoritarian regimes may also tend toward zombie status, but equally, they may double down, get boosted, and become fully-fledged techno-dictatorships. The delicate balance holding states together on either path is tipped into chaos.
Both failing states and authoritarian regimes are disastrous outcomes, not just on their terms but also for governing technology; neither flailing bureaucracies, populist opportunists, nor all-powerful dictators are people you’d want to be fundamentally responsible for controlling powerful new technologies. Neither direction can or will contain the coming wave.
Technologies can fail in the mundane sense of not working: the engine doesn’t start, and the bridge falls. But they can also fail in the broader sense. If technology damages human lives, produces societies filled with harm, or renders them ungovernable because we empower a chaotic long tail of bad (or unintentionally dangerous) actors—if, in the aggregate, technology is damaging—then it can be said to have failed in another, deeper sense, failing to live up to its promise. Failure, in this sense, isn’t intrinsic to technology; it is about the context within which it operates, the governance structures it is subject to, and the networks of power and uses to which it is put.
That impressive ingenuity giving rise to so much now means we are better at avoiding the first kind of failure. Fewer planes crash, cars are cleaner and safer, and computers are more powerful yet secure. Our great challenge is that we still haven’t reckoned with the latter failure mode.
Over centuries, technology has dramatically increased the well-being of billions of people. We are immeasurably healthier thanks to modern medicine. Most of the world has abundant food; people have never been more educated, peaceful, or materially comfortable. These are defining achievements produced in part by that great motor of humanity: science and the creation of technology. That’s why I have devoted my life to safely developing these tools.
But any optimism from this extraordinary history must be grounded in blunt reality. Guarding against failure means understanding and ultimately confronting what can go wrong. We must follow the chain of reasoning to its logical endpoint without fear of where that might lead and, as we get there, do something about it. The coming wave of technologies threatens to fail faster and on a broader scale than anything witnessed before. This situation needs worldwide, widespread attention. It needs answers, answers that no one yet has.