We are about to see the greatest redistribution of power in history.
Over millennia, humanity has been shaped by successive waves of technology. The discovery of fire, the invention of the wheel, the harnessing of electricity—all were transformational moments for civilization. All were waves of technology that started small, with a few precarious experiments, but eventually they broke across the world. These waves followed a similar trajectory: breakthrough technologies were invented, delivered huge value, and so they proliferated, became more effective, cheaper, more widespread and were absorbed into the normal, ever-evolving fabric of human life.
We are now facing a new wave of technology, centered around AI but including synthetic biology, quantum computing, and abundant new sources of energy. In many respects it will repeat this pattern. Yet it will also depart from it in crucial ways only now becoming clear. Amidst all the hype, the hope, the fear, I think the fundamentals are getting lost; the unique characteristics of this wave are getting missed in the noise. Understanding them, seeing what, exactly, is changing, is critical to understanding the future.
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AI is different from previous waves of technology because of how it unleashes new powers and transforms existing power. This is the most underappreciated aspect of the technological revolution now underway. While all waves of technology create altered power structures in their wake, none have seen the raw proliferation of power like the one on its way.
Think of it like this. Previous era’s most powerful technologies were generally reserved to a small capital rich elite or national governments. Building a steam powered factory, an aircraft carrier or a nuclear power plant were costly, difficult and immense endeavors. With the leading technologies of our time, that’s no longer going to be true.
If the last great tech wave—computers and the internet—was about broadcasting information, this new wave is all about doing. We are facing a step change in what’s possible for individual people to do, and at a previously unthinkable pace. AI is becoming more powerful and radically cheaper by the month—what was computationally impossible, or would cost tens of millions of dollars a few years ago, is now widespread.
These AIs will organize a retirement party and manage your diary, they will develop and execute business strategies, whilst designing new drugs to fight cancer. They will plan and run hospitals or invasions just as much as they will answer your email. Building an airline or instead grounding the entire fleet each becomes more achievable. Whether it’s commercial, religious, cultural, or military, democratic or authoritarian, every possible motivation you can think of can be dramatically enhanced by having cheaper power at your fingertips. These tools will be available to everyone, billionaires and street hustlers, kids in India and pensioners in Beverly Hills, a proliferation of not just technology but capability itself.
Power, the ability to accomplish goals, everywhere, in the hands of anyone who wants it. I’m guessing that’s going to be most people. This is far more empowering than the web ever was.
And it’s coming faster than we can adequately prepare for. This is an age when the most powerful technologies are open-sourced in months, when millions have access to the cutting edge, and that cutting edge is the greatest force amplifier ever seen. This new era will create giant new businesses, empower a long tail of actors—good and bad—supercharge the power of some states, erode that of others. Whether a giant corporation or a start-up, an established party or an insurgent movement, a wild-eyed entrepreneur or a lone wolf with an ax to grind, here is an immense potential boost. Winners and losers will emerge quickly and unpredictably in this combustible atmosphere as power itself surges through the system. In short this represents the greatest reshuffling of power in history, all happening within the space of a few years.
Those most comfortable today look vulnerable. Even as the discourse around AI has reached a fever pitch, those with power today, the professional classes, feel shockingly unprepared for the disruptions and new formations of power this tumult will bring. They—the doctors, lawyers, accountants, business VPs—will not emerge unscathed, and yet most I speak to are still incredibly blasé about the changes afoot. It’s not just automated call centers. This wave will fundamentally reshape and reorder society and it is those with most to lose, reliant on established capital, expertise, authority and security architectures, who are precisely the most exposed.
I’ve seen this kind of willful blindness before. I call it “pessimism aversion”: a tendency to look away from sweeping technological change and what it really means. Until recently it was a common affliction of the Silicon Valley elite, many of whom pursued technological “disruption” without considering the likely outcomes. The arrival of generative AI and other AI products has started to change that. Although there is much further to go, leaders in Silicon Valley have begun taking a more proactive and precautionary approach to the development of the very largest AI models. But more widely it’s vital that societies facing this wave do not dismiss it as hot air, turn away, and get caught out. The preparation for what I call containment, a comprehensive program of managing these tools, needs to begin now.
As we start to see power itself proliferating, its distribution and nature fundamentally changed, pessimism aversion is no answer. It’s time to confront the consequences of this shift in who can do what, when and how, understand what it means, and begin to plan for how we can control and contain it for everyone’s benefit. History can be a useful guide. But with AI, synthetic biology and the rest, we can be confident of one thing: we are facing the genuinely unprecedented.
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