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TED Talk by Mustafa Suleyman: Understanding AI's Future

May 17, 2024

Mustafa Suleyman, a prominent figure in the field of Artificial Intelligence and co-founder of Inflection AI, recently delivered an insightful TED Talk.

Below is his presentation, or you can view the full video here:

"I want to tell you what I see coming. I've been lucky enough to be working on AI for almost 15 years now, back when I started to describe it as 'Fringe' would be an understatement. Researchers would say, 'No, no, we're only working on machine learning,' because working on AI was seen as way too out there. In 2010, just the very mention of the phrase AGI, artificial general intelligence, would get you some seriously strange looks and even a cold shoulder. 'You're actually building AI?' people would say, 'Isn't that something out of science fiction?' People thought it was 50 years away, or 100 years away, if it was even possible at all. Talk of AI was, I guess, kind of embarrassing. People generally thought we were weird, and I guess in some ways, we kind of were.

It wasn't long, though, before AI started beating humans at a whole range of tasks that people previously thought were way out of reach: understanding images, translating languages, transcribing speech, playing Go and chess, and even diagnosing diseases. People started waking up to the fact that AI was going to have an enormous impact, and they were rightly asking technologists like me some pretty tough questions: Is it true that AI is going to solve the climate crisis? Will it make personalized education available to everyone? Does it mean we'll all get universal basic income and we won't have to work anymore? Should I be afraid? What does it mean for weapons and war, and of course, will China win? Are we in a race? Are we headed for a mass misinformation apocalypse? All good questions.

But it was actually a simpler and much more fundamental question that left me puzzled, one that actually gets to the very heart of my work every day. One morning over breakfast, my six-year-old nephew Caspian was playing with Pi, the AI I created at my last company, Inflection. With a mouthful of scrambled eggs, he looked at me plain in the face and said, 'But Mustafa, what is an AI anyway?' He's such a sincere and curious and optimistic little guy. He'd been talking to Pi about how cool it would be if one day in the future, he could visit dinosaurs at the zoo and how he could make infinite amounts of chocolate at home, and why Pi couldn't yet play 'I Spy.'

Well, I said, 'It's a clever piece of software that's read most of the text on the open internet, and it can talk to you about anything you want.' 'Right, so like a person then?' I was stumped, genuinely left scratching my head. All my boring stock answers came rushing through my mind: 'No, but AI is just another general purpose technology like printing or steam. It'll be a tool that will augment us and make us smarter and more productive, and when it gets better over time, it'll be like an all-knowing Oracle that will help us solve grand scientific challenges.' You know, all of these responses started to feel, I guess, a little bit defensive, and actually better suited to a poli seminar than breakfast with a noon's 6-year-old.

'Why am I hesitating?' I thought to myself. 'You know, let's be honest. My nephew was asking me a simple question that those of us in AI just don't confront often enough: What is it that we are actually creating? What does it mean to make something totally new, fundamentally different to any invention that we have known before?'

It is clear that we are at an inflection point in the history of humanity. On our current trajectory, we're headed towards the emergence of something that we are all struggling to describe, and yet, we cannot control what we don't understand. And so, the metaphors, the mental models, the names, these all matter if we're to get the most out of AI whilst limiting its potential downsides. As someone who embraces the possibilities of this technology but who's also always cared deeply about its ethics, we should, I think, be able to easily describe what it is we are building, and that includes to six-year-olds.

So, it's in that spirit that I offer up today the following metaphor for helping us to try to grapple with what this moment really is. I think AI should best be understood as something like a new digital species. Now don't take this too literally, but I predict that we'll come to see them as digital companions, new partners in the journeys of all our lives, whether you think we're on a 10, 20, or 30-year path here. This is, in my view, the most accurate and most fundamentally honest way of describing what's actually coming. And above all, it enables everybody to prepare for and shape what comes next.

Now, I totally get this as a strong claim, and I'm going to explain to everyone as best I can why I'm making it. But first, let me just try to set the context: from the very first microscopic organisms, life on Earth stretches back billions of years. Over that time, life evolved and diversified. Then, a few million years ago, something began to shift. After countless cycles of growth and adaptation, one of life's branches began using tools, and that branch grew into us. We went on to produce a mesmerizing variety of tools, at first slowly, and then with astonishing speed. We went from stone axes and fire to language, writing, and eventually industrial technologies. One invention unleashed a thousand more, and in time, we became homo technicus.

Around 80 years ago, another new branch of technology began with the invention of computers. We quickly jumped from the first mainframes and transistors to today's smartphones and virtual reality headsets. Information, knowledge, communication, computation—in this revolution, creation has exploded like never before. And now, a new wave is upon us: artificial intelligence. These waves of history are clear, speeding up as each one is amplified and accelerated by the last. And if you look back, it's clear that we are in the fastest and most consequential wave ever.

The journeys of humanity and technology are now deeply intertwined. In just 18 months, over a billion people have used large language models. We've witnessed one landmark event after another. Just a few years ago, people said that AI would never be creative, and yet, AI now feels like an endless river of creativity, making poetry and images and music and video that stretch the imagination. People said it would never be empathetic, and yet, today, millions of people enjoy meaningful conversations with AIs, talking about their hopes and dreams, and helping them work through difficult emotional challenges.

AIs can now drive cars, manage energy grids, and even invent new molecules. Just a few years ago, each of these was impossible. And all of this is turbocharged by spiraling exponentials of data and computation. Last year, Inflection 2.5, our last model, used five billion times more computation than the DeepMind AI that beat the old-school Atari games just over 10 years ago. That's nine orders of magnitude more computation, 10x per year, every year, for almost a decade. Over the same time, the size of these models has grown from first tens of millions of parameters, to then billions of parameters, and very soon, tens of trillions of parameters.

If someone did nothing but read 24 hours a day, for their entire life, they'd consume 8 billion words. And of course, that's a lot of words, but today, the most advanced AIs consume more than eight trillion words in a single month of training. And all of this is set to continue. The long arc of technological history is now in an extraordinary new phase.

So, what does this mean in practice? Well, just as the internet gave us the browser, and the smartphone gave us apps, the cloud-based supercomputer is ushering in a new era of ubiquitous AIs. Everything will soon be represented by a conversational interface, or to put it another way, a personal AI. And these AIs will be infinitely knowledgeable, and soon they'll be factually accurate and reliable. They'll have near-perfect IQ, they'll also have exceptional EQ. They'll be kind, supportive, empathetic. These elements, on their own, would be transformational. Just imagine if everybody had a personalized tutor in their pocket, and access to low-cost medical advice, a lawyer, and a doctor, a business strategist, and a coach, all in your pocket, 24 hours a day.

But things really start to change when they develop what I call AQ, their actions quotient. This is their ability to actually get stuff done, in the digital and physical world. And before long, it won't just be people that have AIs. Strange as it may sound, every organization, from small business to nonprofit to national government, each will have their own. Every town, building, and object will be represented by a unique interactive persona. And these won't just be mechanistic assistants. They'll be companions, confidants, colleagues, friends, and partners, as varied and unique as we all are.

At this point, AIs will convincingly imitate humans at most tasks, and we'll feel this at the most intimate of scales—an AI organizing a community get-together for an elderly neighbor, a sympathetic expert helping you make sense of a difficult diagnosis. But we'll also feel it at the largest scales, accelerating scientific discovery, autonomous cars on the roads, drones in the skies. They'll both order the takeout and run the power station. They'll interact with us, and of course, with each other. They'll speak every language, take in every pattern of sensor data—sights, sounds, streams, and streams of information, far surpassing what any one of us could consume in a thousand lifetimes.

So, what is this? What are these AIs? If we are to prioritize safety above all else, to ensure that this new wave always serves and amplifies humanity, then we need to find the right metaphors for what this might become. For years, we in the AI community, and I specifically, have had a tendency to refer to this as just tools. But that doesn't really capture what's actually happening here. AI is clearly more dynamic, more ambiguous, more integrated, and more emergent than mere tools, which are entirely subject to human control.

So, to contain this wave, to put human agency at its center, and to mitigate the inevitable unintended consequences that are likely to arise, we should start to think about them as we might a new kind of digital species. Now, it's just an analogy. It's not a literal description, and it's not perfect. I mean, for a start, they clearly aren't biological in any traditional sense. But just pause for a moment and really think about what they already do. They communicate in our languages, they see what we see, they consume unimaginably large amounts of information, they have memory, they have personality, they have creativity. They can even reason, to some extent, and formulate rudimentary plans. They can act autonomously, if we allow them, and they do all this at levels of sophistication that is far beyond anything that we've ever known from a mere tool.

And so, saying AI is mainly about the math or the code is like saying we humans are mainly about carbon and water. It's true, but it completely misses the point. And yes, I get it, this is a super arresting thought, but I honestly think this frame helps sharpen our focus on the critical issues: What are the risks? What are the boundaries that we need to impose? What kind of AI do we want to build, or allow to be built? This is a story that's still unfolding. Nothing should be accepted as a given. We all must choose what we create, what AIs we bring into the world, or not. These are the questions for all of us here today, and all of us alive at this moment.

For me, the benefits of this technology are stunningly obvious, and they inspire my life's work every single day. But quite frankly, they'll speak for themselves. Over the years, I've never shied away from highlighting risks and talking about downsides. Thinking in this way helps us focus on the huge challenges that lie ahead for all of us. But let's be clear: there is no path to progress where we leave technology behind. The prize for all of civilization is immense. We need solutions in healthcare and education, to our climate crisis. And if AI delivers just a fraction of its potential, the next decade is going to be the most productive in human history.

Here's another way to think about it. In the past, unlocking economic growth often came with huge downsides. The economy expanded as people discovered new continents and opened up new frontiers, but they colonized populations at the same time. We built factories, but they were grim and dangerous places to work. We struck oil, but we polluted the planet. Now, because we are still designing and building AI, we have the potential and opportunity to do it better, radically better. And today, we're not discovering a new continent and plundering its resources. We're building one from scratch.

Sometimes people say that data or chips are the 21st century's new oil, but that's totally the wrong image. AI is to the mind what nuclear fusion is to energy: limitless, abundant, world-changing. An AI really is different. That means we have to think about it creatively and honestly. We have to push our analogies and our metaphors to the very limits to be able to grapple with what's coming, because this is not just another invention. AI is itself an infinite inventor. And yes, this is exciting and promising and concerning and intriguing all at once. To be quite honest, it's pretty surreal. But step back, see it on the long view of glacial time, and these really are the very most appropriate metaphors that we have today.

Since the beginning of life on Earth, Earth, we've been evolving, changing, and then creating everything around us in our human world. Today, an AI isn't something outside of this story; in fact, it's the very opposite. It's the whole of everything that we have created, distilled down into something that we can all interact with and benefit from. It's a reflection of humanity across time. And in this sense, it isn't a new species at all. This is where the metaphors end. Here's what I'll tell Caspian next time he asks: AI isn't separate. AI isn't even, in some senses, new. AI is us. It's all of us. And this is perhaps the most promising and vital thing of all, that even a six-year-old can get a sense for. As we build out AI, we can and must reflect all that is good, all that we love, all that is special about humanity: our empathy, our kindness, our curiosity, and our creativity. This, I would argue, is the greatest challenge of the 21st century, but also the most wonderful, inspiring, and hopeful opportunity for all of us. Thank you, thank you, thank you."

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