Even though I’ve listed only a few books on the topic, last year I read a lot about current technology and how it may affect our society in the future. Ethics, machines that “think,” and our inability to comprehend complexity around us were the themes of the year, prompted by my short post about fairness in late 2016. Here are some of the books you should consider putting on your reading list.
Justice: What’s the right thing to do?
Michael Sandel explores theories of justice and morality that prevail today. Through case studies, thought experiments, and writings of ancient and modern philosophers, the author shows that the universal set of moral laws doesn’t exist. The book didn’t give me the answer I wanted at first. However, it was the book I needed to read, and it gave me tools to help think critically about justice and why people hold different moral beliefs.
Weapons of Math Destruction
Our lives are affected by computer algorithms more than we’re aware of. When algorithms work well, they make our life easier, but when they don’t, the consequences can be destructive in a subtle way. I’ve been thinking and writing about bias in computer models we’re building. Cathy O’Neil goes a step further and describes how algorithms are already pervasive in finance, education, and medicine to name just a few areas.
This book published in mid-2016 was the first from this list that mentioned that Facebook’s News Feed algorithm could decide on the US presidency.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
Following his excellent book Sapiens, in which he tells the controversial history of how humans became the rulers of the Earth, in Homo Deus the author Yuval Noah Harari describes technologies and challenges we face today and how they might change humanity forever. The first half of the book is mostly a carryover from Sapiens; that’s necessary to give context but a bit repetitive if you’ve just read the prequel. However, the second half of Homo Deus will make up for it.
The book is also the second on this year’s list that mentions:
On a more sinister note, the same study implies that in the next US presidential elections, Facebook could know not only the political opinions of tens of millions of Americans, but also who among them are the critical swing votes, and how these votes might be swung.
The book was published in 2015.
Salt Sugar Fat
Michael Moss hasn’t written a cookbook nor a self-help book to change your nutrition. No, he has chronicled how food companies have—through their own will and sometimes market pressure—used the three magic ingredients to make processed food more appealing and even addictive. As a consequence, our health has suffered and profits of those companies have soared. I appreciated the irony of food execs skipping their own products to eat healthier food and tobacco execs stopping smoking because their doctors recommend it due to their poor health.
The Accidental Superpower
Peter Zeihan claims that geography, transportation opportunities, and energy sources of a country are critical to economic development and political cooperation. He goes through history from the time of pharaohs and describes how specific geopolitical situations have given birth to technological developments and dominant nations of the day. At one point, the author focuses on the US and tells how its demographics and energy sources are uniquely positioned to keep the US partly independent from the global energy trade and challenges of the aging population.
The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why
Humans aren’t rational thinkers, and this is especially true during floods, fires, and similar situations when people are just trying to save their lives. Amanda Ripley analyzes stages we go through when we find ourselves in a life or death situation, what’s the automatic response and why (hint: it’s often wrong), and what can we do maximize our chances of getting through. The book is filled with real-life examples, and it tells where things have gone right and where they didn’t. The good news is that we can avoid most dangers in a disaster situation just by taking on a bit of training and by observing the world around us.
The Undoing Project
The groundbreaking research in the 70s and 80s of two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, has transformed psychology and earned a Nobel prize in economics. Michael Lewis chronicles how these two very different man have formed an unlikely partnership. The author goes deep and tells a story of two brilliant, but still emotional humans, of challenges they’ve faced with others and among themselves, what has brought them together, and what forces have broken them apart.
Kim Scott makes a case for radical candor as the right communication style if you want to be a great boss. She says all other approaches have some negative consequences, including not saying anything when something should be said. I would recommend this book to everyone, but especially to leaders and managers.
Maus is a Pulitzer-awarded graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. He tells a horrific story of how his family of Polish Jews survived through World War II. All Jews are illustrated as mice and all Germans as cats. The topic makes the book harder to read, but the visual format gives it a new perspective worth experiencing.