By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
The Ramifications Of Artificial Intelligence Part One
In the annals of human history, some moments stand out as turning points with the coming wave of technology that includes advanced AI and biotechnology. Never before have we witnessed technologies with such transformative potential, promising to reshape our world in awe-inspiring and daunting ways.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the intelligence of machines or software, as opposed to the intelligence of humans or animals. It is also the field of computer science that develops and studies intelligent machines. "AI" may also refer to the machines themselves.
In April 2023, a group of academics at Carnegie Mellon University set out to test the chemistry powers of artificial intelligence. To do so, they connected an AI system to a hypothetical laboratory. Then, they asked it to produce various substances. With just two words of guidance—“synthesize ibuprofen”—the chemists got the system to identify the steps necessary for laboratory machines to manufacture the painkiller. As it turned out, the AI knew both the recipe for ibuprofen and how to produce it. Unfortunately, the researchers quickly discovered that their AI tool would synthesize chemicals far more dangerous than Advil.
A select few artificial intelligences we used to call organizations will massively benefit from a new concentration of ability—probably the greatest such concentration yet seen. Re-creating the essence of what’s made our species so successful into tools that can be reused and reapplied over and over in myriad different settings is a mighty prize that corporations and bureaucracies of all kinds will pursue and wield. How these entities are governed and how they will rub against, capture, and reengineer the state is an open question. That they will challenge it seems inevitable. But the consequences of greater concentrations of power don’t end with corporations.
Previously, the tools available to totalitarian governments weren’t equal to the task. So, those governments failed to improve the quality of life or eventually collapsed or reformed. Extreme concentration wasn’t just highly undesirable; it was practically impossible.
The coming wave presents the disturbing possibility that this may no longer be true. Instead, it could initiate an injection of centralized power and control that will morph state functions into repressive distortions of their original purpose—rocket fuel for authoritarians and great power competition. The ability to capture and harness data at an extraordinary scale and precision; to create territory-spanning systems of surveillance and control, reacting in real-time; to put, in other words, history’s most robust set of technologies under the command of a single body, would rewrite the limits of state power so comprehensively that it would produce a new kind of entity altogether.
Immediately, you turn to your phone and check your emails. Your smartwatch tells you you’ve slept normally and your heart rate is average for the morning. Already, a distant organization knows, in theory, what time you are awake, how you are feeling, and what you are looking at. You leave the house and head to the office, your phone tracking your movements, logging the keystrokes on your text messages and the podcast you listen to. On the way and throughout the day, you are captured on CCTV hundreds of times. After all, this city has at least one camera for every ten people, maybe many more than that. When you swipe in at the office, the system notes your time of entry. Software installed on your computer monitors productivity down to eye movements.
On the way home, you stop to buy dinner. The supermarket’s loyalty scheme tracks your purchases. After eating, you binge-stream another TV series; your viewing habits are duly noted. Every glance, every hurried message, every half thought registered in an open browser or fleeting search, every step through bustling city streets, every heartbeat and bad night’s sleep, every purchase made or backed out of—it is all captured, watched, tabulated. And this is only a tiny slice of the possible data harvested daily, not just at work or on the phone, but at the doctor’s office or the gym. Almost every detail of life is logged somewhere by those with the sophistication to process and act on the data they collect. This is not some far-off dystopia.
The only step left is bringing these disparate databases together into a single, integrated system: a perfect twenty-first-century surveillance apparatus. The preeminent example is, of course, China. That’s hardly news, but what’s become clear is how advanced and ambitious the party’s program is, let alone where it might end up in twenty or thirty years.
Compared with the West, Chinese research into AI concentrates on surveillance areas like object tracking, scene understanding, and voice or action recognition. Surveillance technologies are ubiquitous and increasingly granular in their ability to home in every aspect of citizens’ lives. They combine visual recognition of faces, gaits, and license plates with data collection—including bio-data—on a mass scale. Centralized services like WeChat bundle everything from private messaging to shopping and banking in one easily traceable place. Drive the highways of China, and you’ll notice hundreds of Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras tracking vehicles. (These exist in most large urban areas in the Western world, too.) During COVID quarantines, robot dogs and drones carried speakers blasting messages warning people to stay inside.
Facial recognition software builds on the advances in computer vision, identifying individual faces with exquisite accuracy. When I open my phone, it automatically starts upon “seeing” my face: a small but slick convenience with evident and profound implications. Although the system was initially developed by corporate and academic researchers in the United States, nowhere embraced or perfected the technology more than in China.
Around half the world’s billion CCTV cameras are in China. Many have built-in facial recognition and are carefully positioned to gather maximal information, often in quasi-private spaces: residential buildings, hotels, and even karaoke lounges. A New York Times investigation found the police in Fujian Province alone estimated they held a database of 2.5 billion facial images. They were candid about its purpose: “controlling and managing people.” Authorities are also looking to suck in audio data—police in the city of Zhongshan wanted cameras that could record audio within a three-hundred-foot radius—and close monitoring and storage of bio-data became routine in the COVID era.
Societies of overweening surveillance and control are already here, and now all of this is set to escalate enormously into a next-level concentration of power at the center. Yet, it would be a mistake to write this off as just a Chinese or authoritarian problem. This tech is being exported wholesale to places like Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Ecuador, and Ethiopia, even in the United States. In 2019, the U.S. government banned federal agencies and contractors from buying telecommunications and surveillance equipment from several Chinese providers, including Huawei, ZTE, and Hikvision. Yet, just a year later, three federal agencies were found to have bought such equipment from prohibited vendors. More than one hundred U.S. towns have even acquired technology developed by the Uighurs in Xinjiang. A textbook failure of containment.
In short, critical parts of modern society and social organization that today rely on scale and centralization could be radically devolved by capabilities unlocked with the coming wave. Mass rebellion, secessionism, and state formation look very different. Redistributing real power means communities of all kinds can live as they wish, whether they are ISIS, FARC, Anonymous, secessionists from Biafra to Catalonia, or a major corporation building luxury theme parks on a remote island in the Pacific.
The Cost Of AI Products
The most significant AI models will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to train; consequently, few will have ownership. But paradoxically, a countertrend will play out in parallel. AI breakthroughs already make their way into open-source code repositories within days of being published in open-access journals, making top-flight models easy for anyone to access, experiment with, build, and modify. Models down to the weights are published, leaked, and stolen.
Companies like Stability AI and Hugging Face accelerate distributed, decentralized forms of AI. Techniques like CRISPR make biological experimentation easier, meaning biohackers in their garages can tinker at the absolute frontier of science. Ultimately, sharing or copying DNA or the code of a large language model is trivial. Openness is the default; imitations are endemic, cost curves relentlessly go down, and barriers to access crumble. Exponential capabilities are given to anyone who wants them.
This heralds a colossal redistribution of power away from existing centers. Imagine a future where small groups—whether in failing states like Lebanon or off-grid nomad camps in New Mexico—provide AI-empowered services like credit unions, schools, and health care, services at the heart of the community often reliant on the scale or the state. The chance to set society's terms at a micro level becomes irresistible: come to our boutique school and avoid critical race theory forever, or boycott the evil financial system and use our DeFi product. Any grouping—ideological, religious, cultural, racial—can self-organize a viable society. Think about setting up your school. Or hospital or army. It’s such a complex, vast, and challenging project. Even the thought of it is tiring. Gathering the resources getting necessary permissions and equipment, is a lifelong endeavor. Now consider having an array of assistants who, when asked to create a school, a hospital, or an army, can make it happen in a realistic time frame.
Fragmentations could occur all over. What if companies themselves start down a journey of becoming states? Or do cities decide to break away and gain more autonomy? What if people spend more time, money, and emotional energy in virtual worlds than the real ones? What happens to traditional hierarchies when tools of incredible power and expertise are as available to street children as to billionaires? It’s already a remarkable fact that corporate titans spend most of their lives working on software like Gmail or Excel, accessible to most people. Extend that radically with democratizing empowerment when everyone has unfettered access to the most powerful technologies ever built.
A Fragmented World
A fragmented world is one where some jurisdictions are far more permissive about human experimentation than others, where pockets of advanced bio-capabilities and self-modification produce divergent outcomes at the level of DNA, which in turn have divergent effects at the levels of states and microstates. There could then be a biohacking personal enhancement arms race. A country desperate for investment or advantage might see potential in becoming an anything-goes biohacker paradise. What does the social contract look like if a select group of “post-humans” engineer themselves to some unreachable intellectual or physical plane? How would this intersect with the dynamic of fragmenting politics, some enclaves trying to leave the whole behind?
A Pre-nation-State World?
Something like the pre-nation-state world emerges in this scenario: neo-medieval, smaller, more local, and constitutionally diverse, a complex, unstable patchwork of polities—only this time with hugely influential technology. When northern Italy was a patchwork of small city-states, it gave us the Renaissance, yet it was also a field of constant internecine war and feuding. Renaissance is great; unceasing war with tomorrow’s military technology, not so much.
For many people working in or adjacent to technology, these radical outcomes are not just unwelcome by-products; they’re the goal itself. Hyper-libertarian technologists like the PayPal founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel celebrate a vision of the state withering away, seeing this as liberation for an overmighty species of business leaders or “sovereign individuals,” as they call themselves. A bonfire of public services, institutions, and norms is cheered on with an explicit vision where technology might “create the space for new modes of dissent and new ways to form communities not bounded by historical nation-states.”
This is a world where billionaires and latter-day prophets can build and run microstates, where non-state actors, from corporations to communes to algorithms, begin to overshadow the state from above and below. Think again of the stirrup and the profound downstream effects of a single, simple invention. And then think of the scale of the invention in the coming wave. Coupled with the existing pressures and fragility, sweeping change in the order of my speculation above doesn’t seem so far out. What would be stranger is no radical change at all.
The World Of Contradictions
If centralization and decentralization sound as if they are in direct contradiction, that’s with good reason: they are. Understanding the future means handling multiple conflicting trajectories at once. The coming wave launches immense centralizing and decentralizing riptides at the same time. Both will be in play at once. Every individual, every business, every church, every nonprofit, and every nation will eventually have its own AI and, ultimately, bio and robotics capability. From a single individual on their sofa to the world’s largest organizations, each AI will aim to achieve its owner's goals. Herein lies the key to understanding the coming wave of contradictions, a wave full of collisions.
Each new power formulation will offer a different vision of delivering public goods or propose another way to make products or a different set of religious beliefs to evangelize. AI systems already make critical decisions with overt political implications: who receives a loan, a job, a place at college, parole, who gets seen by a senior physician. Within the decade, AIs will decide how public money gets spent, where military forces are assigned, or what students should learn. This will occur in both centralizing and decentralizing ways. An AI might, for example, operate as one massive, state-spanning system, a single general-purpose utility governing hundreds of millions. Equally, we will also have vastly capable systems, available at low cost, open-source, highly adapted, catering to a village.
Multiple ownership structures will exist in tandem: technology democratized in open-source collectives, the products of today’s corporate leaders or insurgent blitz-scaling start-ups, and government-held, whether through nationalization or in-house nurturing. All will coexist and coevolve, and everywhere, they will alter, magnify, produce, and disrupt flows and networks of power.
Where and how the forces play out will vary dramatically according to existing social and political factors. This should not be an oversimplified picture, and numerous points of resistance and adaptation will not be evident in advance. Some sectors or regions will go one way, some the other; some will see powerful contortions of both. Some hierarchies and social structures will be reinforced; others overturned; some places may become more equal or authoritarian, others much less so. In all cases, the additional stress and volatility, the unpredictable amplification of power, and the wrenching disruption of radical new centers of capability will further stress the foundation of the liberal democratic nation-state system.
The coming wave will only deepen and recapitulate the same contradictory dynamics of the last wave. The internet precisely does this: centralizes in a few critical hubs while empowering billions of people. It creates behemoths and yet allows everyone to join in. Social media made a few giants and a million tribes. Everyone can build a website, but there’s only one Google. Everyone can sell their niche products, but only one Amazon exists. And on and on. This tension, this potent, combustible brew of empowerment and control, primarily explains the disruption of the internet era.
With the coming wave, forces like these will expand beyond the internet and the digital sphere. Apply them to any given area of life. Yes, this recipe for wrenching change is one we’ve seen before. But if the internet seemed big, this is bigger. Massively omni-use general-purpose technologies will change both society and what it means to be human. This might sound hyperbolic. But within the next decade, we must anticipate radical flux, new concentrations, information, wealth, and power dispersals.
So, where does it leave technology, and, much more important, where does it leave us? What happens if the state can no longer control the coming wave in a balanced fashion?
The already precarious condition of the modern nation-state and previewed new threats arriving with the coming wave. This is how a crushing set of stressors and a colossal redistribution of power will converge to take the one force capable of managing the wave—the state—to a crisis point.
That moment is almost here. Brought about by the inexorable rise of technology and the end of nations, this crisis will take the form of a vast, existential-level bind, a set of brutal choices and trade-offs representing the most crucial dilemma of the twenty-first century
Leaving us with no good options would be technology’s ultimate failure. Yet this is precisely where we are headed.