Book recommendations from 2017: Emerging technologies, AI, self-improvement, and more

As 2017 winds to a close, I thought it might be useful to document some of my favorite books of the year. Below are a few recommendations from this past year’s reading, broken down roughly across a few categories, with further detail and recommendations beneath the first list.

I mostly ‘read’ my books via Audible … but I do miss amassing a stack of completed books

Books about the growth of particular technologies or figures

Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, by Jill Jonnes

Books about the similarities and differences of humans and machines

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, by Max Tegmark

Books about self-improvement

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, by Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant

Science-fiction books

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Books about recent events

American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road, by Nick Bilton


Books about the growth of particular technologies or figures

Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, by Jill Jonnes

Following my time at MIT’s “AI and the Future of Work” conference, I wanted to learn more about the growth of other general purpose technologies — and electricity seemed as good a place to start as any (though this may also have been inspired by the forthcoming movie The Current War, which unfortunately has lackluster reviews).

A few interesting tidbits:

  • Tesla forewent financial gains to keep his AC systems in production; he waived his royalties from Westinghouse when Westinghouse faced financial difficulties and otherwise may not have been able to continue. Not quite the same as the open-sourcing of AI libraries like TensorFlow, but still an interesting story.
  • Electricity became embroiled in public relations debates about its use for unseemly means, often peddled by existing business interests (e.g., competitors trying to get Westinghouse’s AC generators used for state executions — “condemning someone to the Westinghouse”)
  • JP Morgan likely authorized the merger of Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston into General Electric without Thomas Edison’s sign-off on naming … A detail of which he wasn’t too keen

Other recommendations: To Pixar and Beyond; The Everything Store; Elon Musk; The Undoing Project

Books about the similarities and differences of humans and machines

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, by Max Tegmark

Max Tegmark, co-founder of the Elon Musk-funded Future of Life Institute, considers the consequences of a future in which both human ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ may be designed, rather than purely evolved. Tegmark also questions what a good future may look like and offers ways to increase the probability of a profoundly positive future. (These changes are in contrast to what Tegmark calls today’s Life 2.0, in which ‘software’ may be designed, but ‘hardware’ is evolved: If I want to learn a new language or musical instrument, I can teach myself over time — but I can’t change my DNA, grow an additional limb, or alter my eye color.)

A few of the insights that have stuck with me:

  • Human ‘software’ has evolved to solve certain problems without direct mapping to their computational complexity (e.g., humans can recognize a friend’s face instantly — a very complex task — but struggle to calculate 457 * 143).
  • Absent existence of a god or some other creator, there isn’t predetermined reason for humans to be at the center of the universe: We could continue our dominion on Earth, or fade into the background vs. a superior species, or cease to exist altogether.
  • There is wide support among the AI community for certain AI safety protocols and goals (e.g., not deploying autonomous killer robots), though still disagreement about the relative priority of this research (and reasons for said disagreement). A list of principles and signatories for norms in AI research can be found here: https://futureoflife.org/ai-principles/

Other recommendations: Algorithms to Live By; The Knowledge Illusion

Books about self-improvement

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, by Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant

Sheryl Sandberg encountered a horrible adversity on a global stage (the sudden passing of her husband, Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey); this is her story of recovering from the grief and what others can do when they face unexpected setbacks or disappointments.

Other recommendations: Grit; Principles; The Happiness of Pursuit

Science-fiction books

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One tells the story of a teen living in and hunting through a wholly-immersive Virtual Reality world (e.g., education, media, combat, currencies, etc). He’s on a quest to find Easter Eggs left behind by the system’s architect and win a life-changingly large prize — and in telling the story, the book helps bring to life what may eventually be the future of VR.

A few themes I appreciated:

  • What are the roles of nations, guilds, and other affinity groups in an increasingly-digital world?
  • What are possible impacts of virtual reality across income levels, education, race, etc?
  • What are applications of VR for leisure vs. productive use (e.g., new forms of games and media, vs. more-effective techniques for learning)

Other recommendations: I, Robot; Minority Report

Books about recent events

American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road, by Nick Bilton

In a year of increased prevalence of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency generally, I found myself fascinated by the story of Ross Ulbricht, aka the Dread Pirate Roberts and founder of the Silk Road (an illicit marketplace that, in the early days of Bitcoin, was a possible cryptocurrency use-case).

On one hand, Ross is incredibly passionate about his cause, and it’s fairly inspiring how committed he was and how he found the determination to grow his enterprise. On the other (more significant) hand, Ross is also a drug kingpin who routinely committed felonies and attempted to have people killed to fulfill his anarcho-capitalist vision… Not cool.

Bilton provides a thorough, albeit possibly dramatized, account of Ross’s fall into criminality and the FBI’s attempts to bring him down, with many ‘first-hand’ accounts taken directly from Ross’s diaries.

Other recommendations: Black Edge; What Happened

What’s next?

Here are a few of the books next up on my queue — I’m excited to see what comes of them:

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, by William Rosen

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., by Ron Chernow

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

Steven Adler is a strategy consultant focused across AI, technology, and healthcare. His most recent project is ChurrPurr.ai — an effort to build a strategy game and the AI to master it.

If you want to follow along with Steven’s projects, make sure to follow this Medium account. Learn more on LinkedIn.