DeepMind cofounder and Microsoft AI CEO Mustafa Suleyman took the stage at TED2024 last week to lay out his vision for an AI-driven future. And according to the AI boss, if you really want to grasp how impactful AI might be to the human species, it might be useful to think of AI as another "species" entirely.

"I think AI should best be understood as something like a new digital species," Suleyman — who left the Google-owned DeepMind lab in 2022 — told the crowd.

"Now, don't take this too literally," he admonished, "but I predict that we'll come to see them as digital companions, new partners in the journeys of all our lives."

In short, Suleyman's prediction seems to be that AI agents will play a deeply involved role in human lives, performing tasks with more agency than now-conventional devices like computers and smartphones. This means they'll be less like tools, and more like buzzy virtual beings — and thus, according to Suleyman, akin to another "species" entirely.

As for what this world would actually look like in practice, Suleyman's predictions, as further delineated in his TED Talk, feel like they're straight out of a sci-fi novel.

According to Suleyman, "everything" — as in, the entire web — "will soon be represented by a conversational interface" experienced by way of a "personal AI," or a digital assistant unique to its users. What's more, said the Microsoft executive, these AIs will be "infinitely knowledgable, and soon they'll be factually accurate and reliable."

"They'll have near-perfect IQ," he added. "They'll also have exceptional EQ. They'll be kind, supportive, empathetic."

Already, though, this vision needs some caveats. Though the AI industry and the tech within it have undoubtedly experienced a period of rapid acceleration, existing available chatbots like OpenAI's ChatGPT and Google's Gemini-formerly-Bard have repeatedly proven to be factually unreliable. And on the "EQ" side, it's unclear whether AI programs will ever successfully mimic the human emotional experience — not to mention whether their doing so would be positive or negative for us in the long run.

But these attributes, according to Suleyman, would still just be the beginning. Per the CEO, things will "really start to change" when AIs start to "actually get stuff done in the digital and physical world." And at that point, Suleyman says, "these won't just be "mechanistic assistants."

"They'll be companions, confidants, colleagues, friends and partners, as varied and unique as we all are," said Suleyman. "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 in other words, they'll be something like supergenius Tomogatchis embedded into every aspect of our on- and offline lives.

But again, while this future is a fascinating prediction to consider, it's still a prediction. It's also a decidedly rosy one. To wit: though Suleyman recently admitted that AI is "fundamentally" a "labor-replacing" technology, any realities of what mass labor-displacement would mean for human society was noticeably missing from the imagined AI utopia that the CEO shared with the TED crowd.

In fact, when later asked about AI risks, Suleyman made the case that AI's future benefits will ultimately "speak for themselves" regardless of any short-term ill effects.

"In the past," he said, "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."

But AI, he says, is different.

"Today, we're not discovering a new continent and plundering its resources," said the CEO. "We're building one from scratch."

Already, though, it could be argued that this isn't exactly true. Building generative AI especially has come at great cost to workers in Africa, many of whom have recounted facing serious and life-changing trauma due to the grim content moderation work required to train AI models like OpenAI's GPT large language models — models that Suleyman's new employer, Microsoft, are heavily invested in.

Suleyman's optimism is easy to understand. He holds a powerful industry position, and has had a large hand in developing legitimately groundbreaking AI programs including DeepMind's AlphaGo and AlphaFold innovations. Moving forward, we'd argue that it's important to pay attention to the scenarios that folks like Suleyman put forward as humanity's possible AI futures — and perhaps more importantly, the less-glimmering details they leave out in the process.

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