Halfway through my interview with the co-founder of DeepMind, the most advanced AI research outfit in the world, I mention that I asked ChatGPT to come up with some questions for him. Mustafa Suleyman is mock-annoyed, because he’s currently developing his own chatbot, called Pi, and says I should have used that. But it was ChatGPT that became the poster child for the new age of artificial intelligence earlier this year, when it showed it could do everything from compose poetry about Love Island in the style of John Donne to devise an itinerary for a minibreak in Lisbon.
The trick hadn’t really worked, or so I thought – ChatGPT’s questions were mostly generic talking points. I’d asked it to try a bit harder. “Certainly, let’s dive into more specific and original questions that can elicit surprising answers from Mustafa Suleyman,” it had trilled. The results still weren’t up to much. Even so, I chuck one at him as he sits in the offices of his startup in Palo Alto on the other end of a video call (he left DeepMind in 2019). “How do you envision AI’s role in supporting mental health care in the future,” I ask – and suddenly, weirdly, I feel as if I’ve got right to the heart of why he does what he does.
“I think that what we haven’t really come to grips with is the impact of … family. Because no matter how rich or poor you are, or which ethnic background you come from, or what your gender is, a kind and supportive family is a huge turbo charge,” he says. “And I think we’re at a moment with the development of AI where we have ways to provide support, encouragement, affirmation, coaching and advice. We’ve basically taken emotional intelligence and distilled it. And I think that is going to unlock the creativity of millions and millions of people for whom that wasn’t available.”
It’s not what I was expecting – AI as BFF – but it’s all the more startling because of what Suleyman has already told me about his background. Born in 1984 in north London to a Syrian father and English mother, he grew up in relative poverty and then, when he was 16, his parents separated and both moved abroad, leaving him and his little brother to fend for themselves. He later won a place at Oxford to study philosophy and theology, but dropped out after a year.
“I was frustrated with it being very theoretical. I was an entrepreneur at heart. I was running a fruit juice and milkshake stall in Camden Town while I was at Oxford. So I was coming back through the summer to make money because I was completely skint. And I was also doing the charity at the same time.” (Suleyman, although a “strong atheist”, was helping a friend set up the Muslim Youth Helpline, designed to make counselling and support available to young Muslims in a culturally sensitive way.) “So it was kind of three things simultaneously. And it just felt like I was doing this ivory tower thing when really I could be making money and doing good.”
Now 39, he’s still not in touch with his dad, and lives alone in California. Reflecting on what he hopes AI can offer – “a boost to what you can do, the way that you feel about yourself” – he says: “I certainly didn’t have that. And I think that many don’t.” But is interaction with a chatbot a realistic replacement for companionship, support, even love? It’s hard not to find the idea a bit chilling. “It’s not intended to be a substitute. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless. I think it can fill in the gaps where people are lacking. It’s going to be a tool for helping people get stuff done. Right? It’s going to be very practical.”
This is one aspect of the sunlit uplands of AI; the shadow side is largely what preoccupies Suleyman in his new book, written with the researcher Michael Bhaskar and ominously titled The Coming Wave. Even if you have followed debates about the dangers of artificial intelligence, or just seen Black Mirror, it’s a genuinely mind-boggling read, setting out the ineluctable forces soon to completely transform politics, society and even the fabric of life itself over the next decade or two. I tell Suleyman that it’s “sobering”. “I mean, that’s a polite way to put it,” he says. “And, you know, it was hard to write – it was gut wrenching in a way. And it was only because I had time to really reflect during the pandemic that I mustered the courage to make the case. And, obviously, I hope I’m wrong.”
Me too. The Coming Wave distils what is about to happen in a forcefully clear way. AI, Suleyman argues, will rapidly reduce the price of achieving any goal. Its astonishing labour-saving and problem-solving capabilities will be available cheaply and to anyone who wants to use them. He memorably calls this “the plummeting cost of power”. If the printing press allowed ordinary people to own books, and the silicon chip put a computer in every home, AI will democratise simply doing things. So, sure, that means getting a virtual assistant to set up a company for you, or using a swarm of builder bots to throw up an extension. Unfortunately, it also means engineering a run on a bank, or creating a deadly virus using a DNA synthesiser.
The most extraordinary scenarios in the book come from the realm of biotech, which is already undergoing its own transformation thanks to breakthroughs such as Crispr, the gene-editing technology. Here, AI will act as a potent accelerant. Manufactured products, Suleyman tells us, could one day be “grown” from synthetic biological materials rather than assembled, using carbon sucked out of the atmosphere. Not only that, but “organisms will soon be designed and produced with the precision and scale of today’s computer chips and software”. If this sounds fanciful, it’s just a bit further along a trajectory we’ve already embarked on. He points out that companies such as The Odin are already selling home genetic engineering kits including live frogs and crickets for $1,999 (£1,550). You can even buy a salamander bioengineered to express a fluorescent protein for $299 – though when I visit the website, they’re out of stock.
Glow-in-the-dark pets aside, many of these developments hold enormous promise: of curing disease, charting a way through the climate crisis, creating “radical abundance”, as Suleyman puts it. But four aspects of the AI revolution create the potential for catastrophe. First, the likelihood of asymmetric effects. We’re familiar with this in the context of warfare – a rag-tag band of fighters able to hamstring a powerful state using guerrilla tactics. Well, the same principle will apply to bad actors in the age of AI: an anonymous hacker intent on bringing down a healthcare system’s computers, say, or a Unabomber-like figure equipped with poison-tipped drones the size of bees.
Second, there’s what Suleyman terms hyper-evolution: AI is capable of refining design and manufacturing processes, with the improvements compounding after each new iteration. It’s incredibly hard to keep up with this rate of change and make sure safeguards are in place. Lethal threats could emerge and spread before anyone has even clocked them.
Then there’s the fact that AI is “omni use”. Like electricity, it’s a technology that does everything. It will permeate all aspect of our lives because of the benefits it brings, but what enables those benefits also enables harms. The good will be too tempting to forgo, and the bad will come along with it.