A summer reading list for innovators


Here’s what to read this summer. (Bigstock)

For this summer’s reading list, we bring you seven very different types of books that have been published since the start of the year, each of them exploring the future of innovation from a different perspective. Some of the authors are YouTube stars with devoted online followings, others are academics or researchers who are just now crossing over into the mainstream. What they all have in common, though, is the ability to explain advances from sometimes arcane scientific fields (neuroscience, genetics or synthetic biology) in a way that generates a broader public discussion about the type of future that we want as a society.

Michio Kaku, The Future of the Mind

While reading about the latest advances in neuroscience may not sound like the ideal way to lounge around the pool during the dog days of summer, Kaku is one of those rare science writers who appears to be just as comfortable on the set of The Daily Show as he is in a traditional academic setting. His earlier books – Physics of the Future and Physics of the Impossible – made him into a YouTube favorite (who else is going to explain how to make a lightsaber?) and now he’s back with an overview of what might be possible in the future for the human brain: uploading memories, telekinesis, and playing our thoughts and dreams the same way we might a motion picture.

What Kaku argues, essentially, is that the future of the mind will look nothing like it does right now, thanks to advances made possible by scientific endeavors such as President Obama’s brain initiative. It may still be some time off, but in the future, says Kaku, we will be able to reverse-engineer the human brain. Once that happens, we might be able to treat mental illness, create human super-intelligence or understand the meaning of consciousness.

Nina Tandon and Mitchell Joachim, Super Cells: Building With Biology

If you’re a fan of TED talks for their ability to inspire thoughts about the future, it’s time to check out one of the latest entries in the TED Books series. Nina Tandon and Mitchell Joachim take us on a whirlwind tour of the latest developments in bioengineering and synthetic biology. Yes, the book appears to be a bit high on the techno-utopianism quotient, but at under 100 pages, the book is a quick way to get up-to-date on the latest advances in an emerging field that the authors refer to as “bio-design.”

The book maps out the amazing future of the cell, as it is used for everything from creating personalized human tissue replacements to growing new types of food. It’s a future in which the biology of nature becomes the building block for future innovation. Super cells, the authors argue, are the key to new advances in fields that one doesn’t typically associate with biology, such as fashion and architecture.

Astra Taylor, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

This book seems to be part of a broader zeitgeist (pioneered by the likes of Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier) in which people question the type of future that we’ve been building with digital technology. There’s a sense, increasingly expressed online, that something is just not quite right — we give too much power to huge Internet giants such as Google and Facebook and all the former utopian potential of the Web doesn’t appear to be working out as planned. We were promised a “revolution” and ended up with something more like a “rearrangement” of power and influence.

Astra Taylor argues that the Internet is actually contributing to the types of inequality that we observe throughout society and changing the way we think about art and culture. Her back story is fascinating – “unschooled” until the age of 13, she later (briefly) attended Brown University and made a documentary film about bad boy philosopher bad boy Slavoj Žižek. She is now one of the activist voices arguing against concentrating too much power in the hands of the Internet’s foremost players. If you’re wondering why the Internet is full of stories about cats instead of deep investigative journalism, this may be the book for you.

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

At first glance, Kolbert’s book — with a dead woolly mammoth on the cover — would appear to be a book more about the past than the future. The book’s title refers to the five great extinctions that have occurred in the world’s history. The sixth extinction is humanity’s own extinction, brought about by radical changes to the planet’s ecosystem. Kolbert asks a poignant question: How is it possible that a technologically advanced society is slowly but methodically destroying itself?

Obviously, this book will probably not go down well with the climate change deniers, but it’s easy to see how this book is part of the new zeitgeist, especially now that the Obama administration has accepted the dire climate warnings from the United Nations as a reality. Kolbert brilliantly explains why factors such as biodiversity matter, and why humanity needs to change its future by first realizing what it is doing to the planet. She draws on the latest thinking in fields ranging from geology to marine biology to explain how and why extinction happens.

Sharon Moalem, Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives — and Our Lives Change Our Genes

Moalem, a neurogeneticist by training, has figured out how to cross the dividing line between popular science and entertainment. His books – with provocative titles like How Sex Works – are obviously intended to cross over as many lines as possible, and he’s a frequent guest on popular media, like the Today Show, The Daily Show and the Dr. Oz. Show. Now he’s here to tell us how we can change our children’s “genetic inheritance.”

Moalem says that, thanks to remarkable progress in understanding the human genome, we no longer need to assume that our genes can not be changed, or that we’re forced to accept a certain genetic fate for our children. The human genome is fluid, and that would appear to open the future to a world of low-cost genetic screening and even genetic enhancements for our offspring.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies

Ever since the book was released in January, “The Second Machine Age” has made headlines in both economic and technology circles, leading to a debate about the way robots and machines are taking over from humans. The book outlines the ways that the growth of exponential, recombinant and digital technologies is leading to a brighter future for humanity. What Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue is that the next age of machines has important implications for how we think about everything – from the future of work to the future of artificial intelligence. Thanks to these “brilliant technologies,” the global economy is on the cusp of a new round of dramatic growth.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

The co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios explains the secrets of creativity. This is not so much a book about the future, as about how to unlock the creativity and innovation within all of us. Not surprisingly, the book — with a Pixar cartoon character on the cover — has been a hit with the casual reader as well as business managers anxious to create a culture of creativity within the organization. What’s not to love? In a summer of blockbuster movies, find out from one of the Pixar geniuses how to go about creating your own creative blockbusters.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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