Notes About "The Coming Wave" by Mustafa Suleyman

I finished reading the 2023 book “The Coming Wave” by Mustafa Suleyman and it’s been a revelation, and by far, one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while.

For reference, Mustafa Suleyman was one of the founders of DeepMind, a company bought by Google who was at the origin of quite a few breakthroughs in AI. This included noted victories of AlphaGo against many of the most important players of the game of Go a decade ago: Fan Hui, Lee Sedol, and Ke Jie.

Chapter 1: Containment Is Not Possible

The core idea of the book is simple:

The coming wave is defined by two core technologies: artificial intelligence (AI) and synthetic biology.

The recent evolution of AI is a sight to behold.

In 2010 ALMOST NO one was talking seriously about AI. Yet what had once seemed a niche mission for a small group of researchers and entrepreneurs has now become a vas global endeavor.

The reality of Silicon Valley in a single phrase:

Spend time in tech or policy circles, and it quickly becomes obvious that head-in-the-sand is the default ideology.

But the wave is happening here and now.

Technology has a clear, inevitable trajectory: mass diffusion in great roiling waves. This is true from the earliest flint and bone tools to the latest AI models.

Chapter 2: Endless Proliferation

One major study pegged the number of general-purpose technologies that have emerged over the entire span of human history at just twenty-four, naming inventions ranging from farming, the factory system, the development of materials like iron and bronze, through to printing presses, electricity, and of course the internet.

Chapter 3: The Containement Problem

Containment is the overarching ability to control, limit, and if need be, close down technologies at any stage of their development or deployment.


Containment encompasses regulation, better technical safety, new governance and ownership models, and new modes of accountability and transparency.


As the printing press roared across Europe in the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had a rather different response. It tried to ban it. Unhappy at the prospect of unregulated mass production of knowledge and culture, the sultan considered the press an alien, “Western” innovation.

Chapter 4: The Technology Of Intelligence

This chapter is a fantastic introduction, filled with historical references, to the recent events that led to the rise of LLMs and GPTs.

The coming wave is a supercluster, an evolutionary burst like the Cambrian explosion, the most intense eruption of new species in the earth’s history.


AI is at the center of this coming wave. And yet, since the term “artificial intelligence” first entered the lexicon in 1955, it has often felt like a distant promise.

The story of AlexNet is the stuff of legends now.

The breakthrough moment took nearly half a century, finally arriving in 2012 in the form of a system called AlexNet.


AlexNet was built by the legendary researcher Geoffrey Hinton and two of his students, Alex Krizhevsky and Ilya Sutskever.


The resulting paper by Hinton and his colleagues became one of the most frequently cited works in the history of AI.


Following the AlexNet breakthrough, AI suddenly became a major priority in academia, government, and corporate life.

A decade later, LLMs became the new hot thing.

Then, in November 2022, the AI research company OpenAI released ChatGPT.


LLMs take advantage of the fact that language data comes in a sequential order. Each unit of information is in some way related to data earlier in the series.


In AI this notion is commonly referred to as “attention.”


These systems are called transformers.


The number of parameters is a core measure of an AI system’s scale and complexity.

The author also proposes an update to Turing’s Test:

Put simply, passing a Modern Turing Test would involve something like the following: an AI being able to successfully act on the instruction “Go make $1 million on Amazon in a few months with just a $100,000 investment.”


Rather than get too distracted by questions of consciousness, then, we should refocus the entire debate around near-term capabilities and how they will evolve in the coming years.


I think of this as “artificial capable intelligence” (ACI), the point at which AI can achieve complex goals and tasks with minimal oversight.


ACI represents the next stage of AI’s evolution.

Chapter 5: The Technology Of Life

At the center of this wave sits the realization that DNA is information, a biologically evolved encoding and storage system.

The most important discovery in the past 25 years of generic engineering is, without any doubt, CRISPR.

CRISPR use cases are multiplying from tomatoes ultrarich in vitamin D to treatments for conditions including sickle-cell disease and beta-thalassemia (a blood disorder producing abnormal hemoglobin).

The pace of evolution in this field is as staggering as LLMs and GPTs:

Whereas once it might have taken researchers weeks of months to determine a protein’s shape and function, that process can now begin in a matter of seconds. This is what we mean by exponential change. This is what the coming wave makes possible.

Chapter 6: The Wider Wave

AI and CRISPR aren’t the only game in town:

I think we’re now getting to the point where AI is pushing robots toward their original promise: machines that can replicate all the physical actions of a human and more.

There’s also an energy revolution happening:

Renewable energy will become the largest single source of electricity generation by 2027.

Chapter 7: Four Features Of The Coming Wave

The Ukrainian resistance against the Russian invaders showed how this new wave is changing the rules in geopolitics.

The Ukrainian resistance made good use of coming-wave technologies and demonstrated how they can undermine a conventional military calculus.


However, this was still a landmark conflict because it demonstrated how quickly a relatively untrained fighting force could assemble and arm itself using relatively affordable technologies available in the consumer market.

Then the author explains the four features, and how they mean a new paradigm in our world: assymetry, hyper-evolution, omni-use, and autonomy.

And, yes, it might also be the end of our species:

Ultimately, in its most dramatic forms, the coming wave could mean humanity will no longer be at the top of the food chain. Homo technologicus may end up being threatened by its own creation.

Chapter 8: Unstoppable Incentives

This chapter describes how the triumph of AlphaGo against Lee Sedol was a watershed moment in media, sports, and politics.

Across Asia, however, the event was bigger than the Super Bowl. More than 280 million people watched live.


AlphaGo was quickly labeled China’s Sputnik moment for AI.


In China, Go wasn’t just a game. It represented a wider nexus of history, emotion, and strategic calculation.

The consequences have wider consequences, and touch every single business in the world.

Once an innovation delivers a competitive advantage like this, everyone must either adopt it, leapfrog it, switch focus, or lose market share and eventually go bust.

But we have to understand the dynamics of technology:

A school of naive techno-solutionism sees technology as the answer to all of the world’s problems. Alone, it’s not. How it is created, used, owned, and managed will make a difference.


Find a successful scientist or technologist and somewhere in there you will see someone driven by raw ego.


Chapter 9: The Grand Bargain

This chapter dives deeper in geopolitical issues, and the influence of the new wave into politics, economics, and history.

History suggests that a monopoly over violence–that is, entrusting the state with wide latitude to enforce law and develop its military powers–is the surest way to enable peace and prosperity.

Because, yes,

In other words, technology is political.


Just as the cannon and the printing press upended society, so we should expect the same from technologies like AI, robotics, (…)

Chapter 10: Fragility Amplifiers

The WannaCry attack exposed just how vulnerable institutions whose operation we take for granted were to sophisticated cyberattacks.


Here is a parable for technology in the twenty-first century. Software created by the security services of the world’s most technologically sophisticated state is leaked or stolen. From there it finds its way into the hands of digital terrorists working for one of the world’s most failed states and capricious nuclear powers.


This is uncontained asymmetry in action.

Fragility is a natural property of our world:

Democratizing access necessarily means democratizing risk.

Chapter 11: The Future Of Nations

The story of stirrups and feudalism highlights an important truth: new technologies help create new centers of power with new social infrastructures both enabling them and supporting them.


Technologies can reinforce social structures, hierarchies, and regimes of control as well as upend them.

And here’s a similar observation to the one made by Graham on De Programmatica Ipsum a few years ago:

Organizations too are a kind of intelligence.

And then, a prediction:

Every individual, every business, every church, every nonprofit, every nation, will eventually have its own AI and ultimately its own bio and robotics capability.

Chapter 12: The Dilemma

We reach the demonstration part of the core thesis of the book, which was the title of the first chapter, by the way: that containment is not possible.

And yet here’s the dilemma: the most secure solutions for containment are equally unacceptable, leading humanity down an authoritarian and dystopian pahtway.


Over the next ten years, AI will be the greatest force amplifier in history.

The nature of human relations will not change, however.

Trading off liberty and security is an ancient dilemma.

And a poignant observation:

Modern civilization writes checks only continual technological development can cash.

Plus some some catastrophism:

Make no mistake: standstill in itself spells disaster.

The author is aware of the tone of his writing:

If this book feels contradictory in its attitude toward technology, part positive and part foreboding, that’s because such a contradictory view is the most honest assessment of where we are.

Chapter 13: Containment Must Be Possible

So, what can we do?

Everyone immediately reaches for easy answers, and almost without exception everyone has the same prescription: regulation.


Regulation is not enough, but at least it’s a start.

Chapter 14: Ten Steps Toward Containment

I will not enumerate them here; read the book, seriously.