Top 10 Books of 2019
Updated: Jan 31, 2020
My top 10 list of books that were published in 2019
Why would Facebook and Google want
our data? Most of us are not that important right?
Consider the case of Cambridge Analytica, one of the many
examples that Shoshana Zuboff describes in her book The Age of
Surveillance Capitalism. In 2018, it was revealed that British
consulting firm Cambridge Analytica were allowed by Facebook to
harvest the personal data of over 80 million of its users (without
their consent). Cambridge Analytica then used these data to target
American voters in the 2016 presidential election. Zuboff provides
many examples like this to show the extent to which our privacy is
becoming compromised in the digital age and why our data
are valuable to companies. She explains how such data can be used to predict and influence our behaviour. Data are the ‘new oil’ which companies are refining for huge economic gains. Zuboff's central message is an alarming one; however, she does make some suggestions about what we can do about it.
2. Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again by Eric Topol
With so many books and articles coming out about the dangers of
AI, it's sometimes easy to forget all the benefits that AI will bring.
Eric Topol's Deep Medicine describes how AI will radically change
the way that the health profession is run. Topol explains how
AI, in combination with big data and deep learning, will allow
health professionals to act with greater effectiveness . He gives
several examples of how this might occur, such as by reducing
the frequency of mistaken diagnoses and by allowing health
professionals to gain knowledge of the latest discoveries in real
time. These technological advances will save health professionals
time, which Topal argues will allow them to establish a greater connection with their patients.
3. Between Truth and Power: The Legal Constructions of Informational Capitalism by Julie E. Cohen
Julie E. Cohen's Between Truth and Power is a 'meditation' on
the future of law in the information age. In it, she describes the
relationship between the latest technological advances in big
tech and the ways in which the law is capable of responding.
Cohen discusses several important issues such as privacy,
ownership, and the current legal loopholes that can and have
been exploited by tech companies for profit. She does an
admirable job of describing the shift from an industrial mode of
development to an information one; as well as the role that legal
institutions have in upholding human rights, dignity and
4. The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread but Can't Be Computed by Christof Koch
Neuroscientist Christof Koch's latest book The Feeling of Life Itself
presents an account of his empirical work on the problem of
explaining consciousness. Koch discusses the work he did with
Francis Crick in the 1980s—which involved identifying the Neural
Correlates of Consciousness (the minimal set of neurological
mechanisms that are sufficient for a conscious experience)—to
his current work on the Integrated Information Theory of
Consciousness. This is a recent empirical theory that states that
‘consciousness is determined by the causal properties of any
physical system operating on itself’ (p. 79). Koch also considers a
series of fascinating questions such as whether a computer program could ever be conscious; whether AI robots could ever be conscious, and if so how we could know; and how widespread consciousness on Earth is. For those interested in a non-technical, state-of-the-art, account of the scientific research that has been carried out on the topic of consciousness, this book should not be missed.
5. No Shadow of a Doubt: The 1919 Eclipse That Confirmed Einstein's Theory of by Relativity by Daniel Kennefick
The philosopher of science Karl Popper was especially impressed
with Arthur Eddington’s 1919 test of Einstein's theory of general
relativity. The experiment, which took place on the island of
Príncipe, exemplified Popper’s notion of falsifiability—his
method for distinguishing science from non-science. If the light
from distance stars was not displaced by the Sun, in the way the
theory predicted, then the whole theory would be falsified. (The
Eclipse provided the best conditions to view such an event). As it
turned out, Eddington's observations were just as Einstein had
predicted and the theory was corroborated. This book tells the
story of how this experiment was carried out and its significance.
The book does a good, non-technical, job of explaining Einstein’s theories; it puts the experiments in historical context (post World War 1); and describes the technical challenges that faced Eddington and his team. Kennefick’s description of the drama, adventure, and controversy associated with the experiments make for an exciting, as well as informative, read.
6. The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984 by Dorian Lynskey
Like many, I take George Orwell’s 1984 to be one of the 20th
century's best works of fiction. I think I first read it when I was about
10 year's old, and have been fascinated with it ever since. The book
is as relevant today as when it was first released, as is shown by
the huge sales the book had following Trump’s 2016 victory. The
Trump presidency has not quite resulted in Winston's Smith
nightmarish world, but many of the book’s central issues remain with
us. Dorian Lynskey's The Ministry of Truth is a biography on the
book itself—namely, how Orwell came to write it, Orwell’s political
influences, the book’s cultural impact, and all else 1984. For
example, Lynskey describes the debt 1984 has to the dystopian novels that came before it such as Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (first published in English in 1924); and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Lynskey notes of Orwell’s belief that Huxley "Partially plagiarised" We. And he comically notes the ‘karma’ that faced Orwell, when he was in turn was accused of plagiarising We. There are plenty of other interesting details and stories in the book that will fascinate those who are interested in the book’s legacy. These include the movies that have been made about the book, ad-campaigns that feature references to the book (e.g. Apple’s 1984 Macintosh ad), David Bowie’s interest in the book, and other cultural marks the book has made. If any novel deserves to have a book written about it, 1984 is surely it. Lynskey's book does a pretty good job of telling its story.
Joseph LeDoux is best known for his work on the emotions such as
fear and anxiety. In his latest book, The Deep History of Ourselves,
he zooms out and provides a history of life on the planet—namely,
from single celled organisms to our complex selves. This book is
one of those ‘big picture’ books in the same vein as E. O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence. LeDoux begins by focusing on
the very beginning of life—that is, the pre-biotic chemical
conditions that gave rise to biology and hence life. The book then
proceeds to show how we got from that point to now. It does so in
66 short chapters, each one describing a step along the way. The
final step being how we got to have complex conscious brains that
are capable of experiencing complex emotions. While being much broader than LeDoux’s other books, it provides a fascinating overview of how we get complex, conscious, brains from something very (comparably) simple.
8. Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft
In Meat Planet, Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft documents his five-year
investigation into the world of cultured meat (otherwise known as
'lab grown meat' or 'clean meat'). His journey spans from the hype
surrounding the 2013 lab-grown hamburger (which cost about
£250,000 to produce), to the current status of cultured meat. The
book does not offer any predictions about when cultured meat will
be on our plates in our dining rooms; but rather it discusses the
implications of large scale adoption of cultured meat, the history of
meat consumption, and some of the science behind cultured meat.
There are also interesting parts of the book that describe some of
the strategies, economic concerns, and priorities that face
companies who are involved in producing cultured meat. Wurgaft delves into some of the ethical issues surrounding cultured meat, and considers arguments from those who claim that eating meat is an essential part of being human. If you're interested in finding out about the status of cultured meat, this book is highly recommended.
9. Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control by Stuart Russell
In his book Superintelligence, Nick Bostrom claims that the
prospect of super-intelligent AIs "is quite possibly the most
important and most daunting challenge humanity has ever faced."
In Stuart Russell’s book, Human Compatible, a similar style of
warning is issued: the risk of losing control of super-intelligent AIs
is a real one, and the consequences of this happening may not
bode well for our species. Russell does, however, make some
suggestions about how we might build AIs whose goals and
interests align with our own. Russell criticises approaches to AI
which are simple goal directed. He claims that such approaches
could unintentionally backfire. For example, if you tell your
driverless car “take me to the airport, without breaking the speed limit”, you could not really blame it if it accelerated and decelerated at irregular intervals (resulting in spilled coffee), injured 12 people, and scratched the car all over. None of this was explicitly stated after all. Perhaps what you really meant to say what something like “get me to the airport as fast as possible, without hurting anyone, scratching the car, and so on.” We wouldn’t have to tell a human all of this because it would be implied. The point that Russell makes in the book is that such implications may not always be communicated in our instructions to AIs. Russell thus suggests an alternative approach to AI, which he calls Inverse Reinforcement Learning—the idea that an algorithm which receives an instruction does not simply assume it has understood your instruction: it will continue to find out more and more about your goals, which helps it to understand the context of the instruction, and your intentions. This may even lead the AI to not carry out the instruction, if it determines that doing so would conflict with your goals. I found this to be a fascinating book, that does not presume an in-depth understanding of the topic, thus making it accessible to the interested reader.
10. Permanent Record by Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden is known to the word as the whistle-blower who,
in 2013, revealed that the NSA were carrying out mass surveillance
on its own citizens. In Permanent Record, a memoir, Snowden
describes the events that led up to his decision to go public with
this information. He describes his early years as a self-described
hacker, to his work with the NSA, to the moment he decided he
could no longer remain silent. It is interesting to read of Snowden’s
deliberation process, as he recalls anticipating the gravity of the
decision he would eventually make. He recalls leaving the USA
without telling anyone of his plans to leak his findings to a reporter
in Hong Kong—he told neither his family, friends, or even partner.
The book doesn’t only feature an interesting personal story about someone who scarified his own freedom in order to benefit the greater good; but also provides an insight into the extent to which mass surveillance is actually being carried out by 'democratic' governments today. Interestingly, the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit upon the book's release; but this seems to have worked in Snowden's favour, as such publicity has helped the book work its way to the top of several best seller lists.
I also thought these books were pretty good too: Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World by Christopher Wylie; In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy by Frederic Martel; The History of Philosophy by A. C. Grayling; Alexander the Great his Life and His Mysterious Death by Anthony Everitt; The Concealed Influence of Custom: Hume's Treatise from the Inside Out by Jay L. Garfield